Dave Zirin

...in his own words

Igrew up in New York City in the 1980s.

About This Project

In his 1973 book "No Cheering in the Press Box," author Jerome Holtzman chronicled the lives of the greatest sports journalists of his generation. Four decades later, students at the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism are updating his work with a series of interviews with the best sports journalists of the last 40 years.

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This chapter was produced by James Crabtree-Hannigan.

About Dave Zirin
HOMETOWN: New York, N.Y.
EDUCATION: Macalester College (Minn.)
OCCUPATION: Sports Editor, The Nation
TWITTER: @EdgeofSports

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In the 1980s in New York, there was tremendous sports all around me, and also a very high pressure environment living and growing up in the city. Sports were always a refuge for me, not just playing them but reading about them, doing sports trivia, memorizing the backs of baseball cards. So I really grew up immersed in sports but also kind of depending on sports as a safe harbor.

There were sportswriting giants in New York tabloids at that point in time. The New York Daily News had Dick Young and Budd Schulberg — the person who wrote “On the Waterfront” was a sports columnist for the New York Post. You also had people like Peter Vecsey, who was covering the NBA for the New York Post in a way that was very much like a tweeting, blogging style, way before its time; series of short, sharp observations and tips he received. But I was also reading people in the New York Times, like Dave Anderson and Robert Lipsyte. It really was a golden age of people writing about sports in the city. Now, a lot of them I often didn’t agree with, even at a young age. My hero growing up was Dwight Gooden from the New York Mets. He got tagged for drugs and went to rehab. When he came out, I’ll never forget that Dick Young wrote that everybody in Shea Stadium should stand up and boo him when he walked out to the mound. I think that was the first time I ever read something that a sportswriter wrote that made me really angry. I think I wrote a letter into the Post that they didn’t run, although it’s probably good they didn’t run it because it involved an 11-year-old’s idea of what curses were.

You knew who the players dated, you knew who was on drugs. Now, that’s everywhere, that global sports world, especially in an era of 24-hour news. But back then in New York, tragically — let put it this way — the same way New York exported hip-hop to the world and made it a global phenomenon, I think New York also exported this type of sportswriting. So, it wasn’t that I was interested in what was happening off the field, it was spread by the New York tabloids as part of sports coverage. They had so moved past the idea way before the rest of the country. That’s just where we were. There weren’t a lot of players making political stands at that time in the 1980s, but the ones who did, they did write about them, usually in a very, very derisive way.

It was called the tabloid wars for a reason. Post, Daily News, Newsday hiring each other’s journalists. I don’t know this for a fact but I bet a columnist in the mid-80s probably made more than a columnist does now for those same papers. Might not be true because you’ve got 30 years of inflation to work with, but I do know that those columnists, they were so powerful. They set the terms of the debate and how you thought about these things like Dwight Gooden coming back from a drug suspension, or Lawrence Taylor coming back from a drug suspension or Keith Hernandez being involved in a cocaine related case. So all of this stuff was out there, and they determined how we talked about it, from bars to barber shops or, in my case, the schoolyard. Today, I think that model has really been turned on its head. It’s social media, not entirely but largely, that sets the terms of debate for how we talk about these things. You see sports media often follow it explicitly, actually reading tweets on the air, to set up debate that they have.

I knew I was fascinated in the intersection of sports and politics, which has really been my beat for 15 years, 20 years ago when Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf made the decision not to stand for the national anthem for the Denver Nuggets. But even though I was interested in sports and politics then, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with it, I was a history major. So whether that was journalism or history or teaching, I had no idea. Or whether it was just going to be some kind of hobby, I had no idea.

I didn’t go to journalism school. People ask me now a lot because I speak at j-schools about whether they should go to j-school or whether it’s right they went to j-school, and I think it has to be an individual choice. There are definitely benefits to doing it, particularly — I’m not just saying this because I’m talking to you — but particularly going to professors at Maryland at the Merrill School. If I’d known that existed, although to be honest it didn’t exist in this form when I graduated, the Merrill School’s different than it was 20 years ago. If that had existed I think that would’ve been a great way to go. I’ve also seen j-schools and spoken to students who think it’s just an engine of debt and they feel like they’d be better off if they had just been able to get a job with a newspaper.

And then in 2003, I was reading people on the internet who were writing sports columns in a way that was different, and I was excited by the journalism I was seeing that was expanding the boundaries of what I thought sports journalism could be. This is the early days of the internet; there’s no social media to speak of except for Friendster, which doesn’t really count. This is even before MySpace really. I’d see people who were taking advantage, taking to blogs and putting up their own work and not being such a slave to form. So, you’d have 1,500 words that would connect culture to sports, or 2,000 words that would connect sports with economics with stadium funding, or even 300 words, just quick hits about things that were going on. That inspired me to be like, ‘Hey, maybe sportswriting doesn’t have to be the Dick Young style sportswriting of hard takes that were almost uniformly anti-player,’ and that it could be something else. And that got me really excited and it made me want to try sportswriting.

So, I got a job with a small newspaper called St. Mary’s Today, they gave me my first chance. I did everything. I sold ads for them, I wrote any article they wanted, I helped do the layout of the paper. It was a two-hour drive and I made very little money, but what I got to do and what my editor and publisher allowed me to do, was to have a little bit in the paper to write this sports column. So, to me, I was living the dream.

I went from St, Mary’s Today to working for the Prince George’s Post, the only black-owned newspaper in Prince George’s County, Maryland. Other than the fact it was much closer to home, which is a major quality-of-life changer, it was also an amazing place where, similarly, I covered whatever needed to be covered. I didn’t have to sell ads at the Prince George’s Post, I was treated like a real newspaper guy. But it was at the Post where I feel like I really learned how to write, because I had to write everything, cover everything, and I got my little sports column, my little sports and politics column.

My brother-in-law, who does computers, he started to put it on the web for me, and it caught the attention of one of my heroes from the 1980s, Bob Lipsyte. Bob Lipsyte is very good friends with Katrina vanden Heuvel, the editor and publisher of The Nation. She’d been sort of pitching him for years to write more sports for them, and Bob got in touch with Katrina and said, “Look, I think I found your person,” and then The Nation offered me what was at that time, in 2004, a freelance gig. It was freelance for several years, where I was just paid per column. They proved to be able to bring a new audience to The Nation. I was their first sportswriter and it brought new eyes to its nascent website, which was just getting off the ground. So they hired me on, put me on the masthead, and I’ve been really happy there.

The Nation doesn’t necessarily cover sports, which is the best and worst, but far more better than worse. The good side is I think I’ve only gotten, maybe half-a-dozen assignments from them in 10 years. I come up with my columns off my own head. It’s what I see out there that’s interesting, and that’s kind of a dream. I can figure out what I want to write about. The only downside to that is that, my experience is sometimes it’s really helpful to have somebody be like, “Dude, I need 800 words on this subject A.S.A.P.” I like that part of newspaper culture because it keeps me on my toes and puts me right to work. Also obviously, often times people see things that I’m not seeing, because there’s only so much of the sports world you can see at any given time. But the support I’ve gotten from them, particularly when people have attacked articles I’ve written, that’s all you can hope for. I’ve never felt like Jemele Hill, I’ll just leave it at that.

The Nation has changed since I’ve been there in that it’s gotten younger, it’s gotten more diverse, the voices that it highlights, and the kind of journalism that it does has really been stellar over the last 10 years and the perspectives that it encompasses. I just feel like them incorporating sports has been a part of that process. I don’t think I’ve changed The Nation at all, but I think I’ve been part of the change that they have incorporated over the last 10 years. And tons of credit to the editors, Richard Kim, Annie Shields, Emily Douglas and our editor-in-chief and publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel, because change isn’t easy. The Nation had an older audience that initially wasn’t so thrilled with some of these changes and they still fought for them.

When I started 15 years ago on this beat, I used to joke that you could take all the sports and politics writers and have an annual meeting inside a phone booth, because it was a very small group — I didn’t say it was a funny joke. But I think, fast forward to now, it’s a remarkable thing to see. One of the arguments I’ve always tried to make is that we’re kidding ourselves if we think there’s this Berlin Wall between sports and politics. To see that become almost common sense now in sportswriting, it’s something that I still shake my head at in disbelief. I’m always grateful that there’s a larger pool to swim in and I’m leaning a lot from the young generation of writers who are covering this beat. To be clear, I really want to be clear about this, I don’t think I made that change happen or anything. I think the world made that happen. Colin Kaepernick helped make that happen. LeBron James helped make that happen. The women of the WNBA have helped make that happen. That’s not me. But I do feel like I have a particularly good perspective on it, just because I’ve been covering it as long as I have. I wouldn’t have predicted the political side of sports becoming this mainstream. The times have created it.

What helps me a lot is just being a history major, being obsessed with the history of sports and politics. Feeling like I have a pipeline to a lot of really good academics out there like Lou Moore, Cheryl Cooky, Ben Carrington, Jules Boykoff — just throwing names off the top of my head — and all of these folks who have done really terrific work talking about the intersection of sports and politics in academic work. Reading their work just continues this lifelong love of history, and then trying to use that history to inform what’s happening right now.

There is a very, very long tradition of activist journalism in the United States — it goes back as long as there’s been journalism itself. Of journalists who take a side and write the stories of that side. We certainly haven’t seen it too much in sports journalism because the idea of taking a side in sports journalism is something that you’ve rarely seen historically, with the exception of some of the black press: The New York Amsterdam News, The Chicago Defender, The Baltimore Afro-American that was agitating for integration in Major League Baseball and other issues of that nature. So it’s more just trying to link up sports journalism with what is a much more broader history of journalism in this country.

I have athletes and coaches call me up sometimes just to vent, because we’ve built a relationship and they trust me and we share certain political affinities. I’d spoken off the record with a legend from an Olympics past just the week before Gregg Popovich called me in October, and I’d talked to Pop before, but his was the first time somebody called me up and said, “I really want to speak on the record.” He called me and was just like, “Let this be on the record,” he talked, and before I could ask a follow-up question he just said, “Bye Dave,” click.

The craziest part about it is that he said to me, “This is as low as Trump can get,” talking about Trump lying about whether or not former presidents had called family members of fallen soldiers. But within 24 hours, he’s politicizing the death of his chief of staff’s son to cover for himself and lying about President Obama not being in contact with the family of John Kelly when there was picture evidence otherwise. I gotta tell you, my first thought was “Wow, I think Pop should’ve waited 24 hours before calling if he wanted to go to the low point.”

How much you can show your personal political views definitely depends on the gig. I think the shame about ESPN, the real shame, is that there’s no damn clarity for the people who work there as far as what gets you suspended, what doesn’t get you suspended. For goodness sake, they suspended Jemele Hill for just retweeting and having a conversation about what a boycott of the Cowboys would look like, not even calling for one. But they didn’t suspend Wendy Hicks in 2015, when Jerry Jones fined Greg Hardy and she actually called for one on television and listed the companies of what people could boycott. I would just be so frustrated at ESPN right now. In journalism, you gotta work where you work. You do the jobs that you need to do. But I don’t think it’s too much to ask of your employer to have some clarity as far as how much editorializing you can do. That’s my frustration with ESPN, frankly.

Twitter’s influence is undeniable. Even if there’s something frustrating about what we’re doing on it, which is effectively creating content for free. It’s also a medium that I would argue demands self-discipline, because it’s so tied into our inability to have impulse control and our anger. This thing that my wife has me doing right now that’s very helpful is typing out tweets and then not sending them. If I’m really angry at something, that’s my version of Nicorette gum. It’s very true that on Twitter, the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference. So what I do is I mute trolls, I certainly don’t block them because often times they treat that as a badge of honor.

If it’s principled negativity, if people disagree with what I say and want to talk about it, I’m all down for that. But we’re not idiots. You know where the line is, and if someone crosses it, that’s it. I know some people make a production out of blocking people, that to me only feeds the troll. Donald Trump is the ultimate troll; it’s not whether you love him or hate him, it’s just whether you’re talking about him. That’s all he cares about.

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