Although many would argue that politics and sports don’t mix, Dave Zirin thinks that argument couldn’t be further from the truth.
From military spectacles at sporting events to the challenges faced by homosexual athletes, Zirin argues that sport practically revolves around politics. He concisely drives this point home in his new documentary, Not Just a Game.
In Not Just a Game, renowned sportswriter Zirin brings his compelling history of sports and politics to the big screen. He cites well-known political turning points in sports history to suggest that not only are sports full of politics, but also these two seemingly competing public arenas should be mixed.
Zirin begins his documentary by challenging the most overt joining of politics and sport: The militarization of professional sports. American sports fans don’t think twice about the political displays they see at major events. We see themed event nights aimed at supporting or honoring the military, and we talk about sports in terms of war and sacrifice.
But how far can this militarization be taken? Apparently all the way to the battlefield.
Arguably, Pat Tillman represents the point where the militarization of sports goes wrong. The cover-up of the events surrounding his death were all but meant to preserve the aura of Tillman as a sporting and military hero. Even worse is that the sports broadcasting community was willing to gloss over the controversial knowledge that, by the time Tillman passed, he was firmly against the war. Here, sports lore outweighed politics.
Zirin goes on to discuss how sports have allowed issues of gender, race and sexuality to be brought to the forefront of public consciousness. Sports legends such as Billy Jean King and Muhammad Ali used sport as a platform to affect change, but it would be denial to suggest we’ve achieved equality.
King, for example, serves as an early—and sustained—example of intolerance toward homosexuals in sports. Although King was hailed for breaking gender barriers, her coming out as a homosexual practically unraveled her credibility. Players such as John Amaechi still face this challenge, and the only athletes who have confirmed their homosexuality have done so after their playing careers have ended.
Finally, Zirin wraps up his documentary questioning the lack of politics in sports today. He turns to commercialization as the culprit, pointing to Michael Jordan as one of the reasons we no longer want a side of politics with our meal of sports.
In 1992, Jordan arrived for the “Dream Team’s” gold medal ceremony with the American flag draped over his right shoulder. While many would like to believe this was an act of patriotism, Zirin points out it was an act of commercialism; Jordan was covering up the Reebok logo on his jacket. This stands in stark contrast to the political statement made by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics.
Ultimately, Zirin believes what is wrong with sports today is that it doesn’t embrace politics. Athletes rarely use their platform to create awareness and change, and they generally avoid discussing controversial issues for fear of alienating fans and sponsors. The commercialization of sport glorifies rebellion, but does not actually embrace it, and Not Just a Game presents a compelling argument to suggest we might be better off believing politics have a place in sports.
- Melanie Formentin