When people think of U.S. sports culture, social justice is rarely the first thing that comes to mind. For some it’s the drama of watching a big playoff game with friends. For others sports have been conquered by rampant commercialization. Still others see the realm of male professional sports as a bastion of racism and sexism.
But this tells only one side of the story. The passions invested by our culture transform the sporting world into a microcosm for much of what is bad, but also good, in society. As such, sports have acted as a political weathervane on many occasions, helping us to see which way the winds of justice are blowing. And while the athletes engaged in our sporting battles are placed on media pedestals as gladiators, they have at times used their public exposure to become real heroes, and even the avant-garde, in vital struggles for social justice.
The Civil Rights Movement gained a great warrior in Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball’s color barrier and fought for racial justice decades before the major gains of the 1960s. The movement against the Vietnam War found a heroic fighter in Muhammad Ali, who more than any other brought anti-war and civil rights groups together into shared struggle. And let us not forget the brave work of tennis great Billie Jean King, who was instrumental in making sports a safe and fun terrain for millions of women across the country.
Nor are these battles for social justice simply relics of the past. It is no accident that the media suppressed the voice and true legacy of NFL-Pro-turned-soldier Pat Tillman when he came out against the U.S. war against Iraq. Earlier this summer, basketball player Jason Collins became the first active male professional athlete to come out of the closet, prompting a whirlwind of public conversation about the deep culture of homophobia coursing through the sports world. His decision was applauded by a majority of his colleagues, as well as the general public, and provided important momentum for the movement for equal rights for LGBT people in the United States.
In this study, Dave Zirin, professional sportswriter and author of A People’s History of Sports in the United States, recounts these stories, exploring the intersections between sports and politics in United States history. Zirin finds much to criticize in the world of sports, but he also clearly loves the games he analyzes, and the stories he tells are both accessible and bursting with a generosity of spirit. Whether you love or hate sports, on the following pages you’ll find something to give you pause, make you think, and perhaps even reassess your views—stories that tell the history of our culture, at its worst and also at its best.