Jeff Pearlman

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Dave Zirin

#155
Many sports reporters feed on access and the free press box buffet. This one does not. Meet a journalist unafraid to tackle big issues—ferociously. POSTED May 21, 2014

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There is a lot of bullshit in sports media.

It’s true, and it’s worse than ever before. Few people dig, probe, look for the truth behind the glitz. Most of us are simply satisfied with access. If an athlete calls a reporter by his first name, nine out of 10 times a positive profile follows. Or—even better—a glowing Tweet.

We are simple and stupid. We aspire to be Skip Bayless and Michael Wilbon (wanna-be celebrities) instead of Red Smith or Frank Deford (craftsmen). We’d rather be recognized walking through an airport than recognized for exemplary work. It sucks, it sucks, it sucks—and it depresses the hell out of me.

Thank goodness for Dave Zirin.

I’ve known Dave for a long time now, and he is—without much debate—one of the most important and bad-ass voices of our time. He tackles issues others tiptoe around. He chases injustice, whereas others merely nod its way. He is the sports editor of The Nation, hosts Edge of Sports Radio on Sirius and writes some truly dazzling books. His newest release, Brazil’s Dance With the Devil: The World Cup, the Olympics and the Fight for Democracy, is a powerful and haunting look at what’s happening behind the scenes (oft-tragically) in a nation hosting both the World Cup and the Olympics. It’s strong work.

You can visit Dave at his website, and follow him on Twitter.

Dave Zirin, welcome to Quazville. Population: You.

JEFF PEARLMAN: Dave, I’m gonna start with a completely random question, because you seem like a good guy to ask. I fear death. Sometimes, I’m consumed by this fear–by the inevitability of non-existence, and how we somehow seem to forget (or don’t mind) that we’re all on an airplane that’s heading toward the ground. I ask folks, “Doesn’t this bother you?”—and 95% say No. Dave, what do you think about the concept of eternal nothingness? Does it concern you? Bother you? Are you good with it? In denial? None of the above?

DAVE ZIRIN: Was going to give a snarky answer to this. But then I thought that honesty might be the better way to go even if it’s a buzz kill. I had a couple of very close friends die before their 24th birthday. I’ve also spent the last 20 years doing a lot of work to abolish the death penalty and gotten to know a lot of people who live on death row and a lot of the victims’ families who are against capital punishment. In other words, I’ve been around some death, so I’m just grateful for the years I’ve had because a lot of folks have had far less.

J.P.: You have a new book that comes out in June. It’s called, Brazil’s Dance With the Devil: The World Cup, the Olympics and the Fight for Democracy. I’ve loved what I’ve read thus far—powerful shit, important issue. While reading it, I found myself thinking that you must be a truly frustrated man. You have this issue of corruption in Brazil—and most people either don’t know or don’t care. Are we just a bunch of lazy fucks consumed by the Kardashians? Do we lack general empathy? Is it all too much work?

D.Z.: Thanks Jeff. I loved Showtime and The Bad Guys Won. Getting dap from authors you respect is, for me, a sustaining part of this gig. I wrote the book in part to raise awareness about what’s happening in Brazil. We can’t fault people for not caring about issues that receive next to zero mainstream attention in the U.S. And also the people who really matter here are the 200 million people in Brazil. They are protesting and raising hell about displacement, corruption, and police brutality so I know they care and I hope the book can shed some light on what they are going through, the movements they are building and the obstacles they face. Thrilled the book has a Brazilian publisher putting out a Portuguese version so folks in Brazil can read it.

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J.P.: Along those lines, what inspired you to write the book? Where’d the idea come from? How much time did you spend in Brazil? What was the process like?

D.Z.: Honestly, the book started as a simplistic no-brainer: “Brazil is going to host the World Cup and the Olympics? Holy crap. That’s a book.” Then I went down to Brazil, started crash reading about Brazil and realized that I was in way over my head. So I changed the focus of it to trying to explain in very elementary terms to a US audience why Brazil matters, why knowing its history matters, and why the World Cup and the Olympics (more specifically why FIFA and why the IOC) are such parasitic institutions. When I was there, I hooked up with a remarkable NGO called Catalytic Communities that brings academics and journalists into the Favelas so people can tell their stories. Thanks to them, every day there was a treasure trove.

J.P.: You’ve always been something of a defender of Barry Bonds, in that you think the hatred and animosity is more about race than PED. I generally find myself agreeing with your stances—but here I don’t. I think he’s an asshole who treated people awfully, and when you treat people awfully—and cheat—it comes back to bite you. Why am I wrong?

D.Z.: I guess it starts by my thinking that the “weight” of the PED era has fallen on the individual shoulders of a few players while Major League Baseball’s owners and players have gotten off with nary a scratch. Far more outrageous to me than Barry Bonds is the fact that Bud Selig gets to be the commissioner of the PED era and the commissioner who “cleaned up the game.” It’s galling to me that Brian Sabean was the only baseball team executive who had to testify in front of Congress. Hell, it bothers me that the House Oversight Committee went from investigating the cover-up around Pat Tillman’s death to steroids as if these are in any way comparable. I’ve always thought that discussions about Barry Bonds’ demeanor gets us off track from focusing on how PED get into locker rooms in the first place, why they’re criminalized, and who benefits from the whole drug war hysteria that engulfs this discussion and turns sports radio jocks into pharmacological experts. As for race and Barry Bonds, I just spoke to too many people whose hatred of Bonds was drenched in such thinly veiled racial animus, that “cheater” was just a substitute for a more volatile word. Of course I’m sure many people dislike Bonds because he’s like a thorny rose without the petals. But for some, other reasons lurk in plain sight.

J.P.: I know loads about your career and almost nothing about your life path? Womb to now, how did this journalism thing happen for you? Who was the first to inspire you to write? To say, “Here’s a path …” And when did you realize it just might work?

D.Z.: Has it worked? It’s working but it’s a day-in-day-out grind just to keep the family in frozen dinners. I was always a nuts sports fan, but never thought sports writing could be something magical and a craft worth pursuing until I read James Baldwin’s 1960 essay about Sonny Liston. I was inspired but also knew I was no James Baldwin. Then I read Mike Marqusee’s book about Muhammad Ali called Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the 1960s. Brilliant book. Unlike Baldwin, which made me feel—correctly—like, “I could never write this well,” Marqusee’s prose was more grounded and inspired me to want to do that kind of sports/political writing for myself.

J.P.: This whole recent Donald Sterling thing fascinates me, in that we’re all so outraged by his words … so willing to damn the man to hell—meanwhile, sports owners everywhere donate to causes that go directly against the interests of poor minorities, fight for causes that have killed income equality, etc … etc. Is this laziness on our part? On the part of players? Do you think athletes—before choosing teams—should look deeper into the business dealings of the owners?

D.Z.: Yes, there are a ton of sports owners who are ickier than whatever’s underneath a teenager’s mattress: people who actually harm thousands of people in their day-to-day lives. Hell, Donald Sterling, as a slumlord, was one of those people but that’s not of course what finally got him. In this case, we learned, yet again, in the power of audio media to trump the written word. People in mainstream publications have been writing about Donald Sterling’s racist activities for years. But much of this evidence was contained in court documents and the testimony of people whose words tend to be ignored. This time there was audio of the man himself and he insulted Magic Johnson—who people feel like they know—so the dynamics were different on every conceivable level.

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J.P.: You co-authored John Carlos’ autobiography. It doesn’t seem like it sold particularly well (no offense. I’ve been there). I wonder if you feel like, in 2014, people have grown ignorance to the Carlos-Smith moment? Or if they somehow don’t grasp the impact? Along those lines, what was he like to partner with?

D.Z.: Oh, I disagree. I don’t know the sales numbers but doing that book was an all-time life highlight. We toured the country together and the audiences were huge. We also toured during the height of Occupy and spoke at Occupy encampments in every city we were in. The audiences were very young and the energy was off the page. Speaking with him in London on the eve of the Olympics actually got a little scary because people were mobbing him so much. The book was a great validation that his actions live on and resonate. As for John Carlos the human being, I say with complete candor that he’s perhaps the finest human being I’ve had the privilege to know. And man, can he tell a story.

J.P.: I remember seeing one of your books and reading the front-cover quote, from Robert Lipsyte, “Dave Zirin is the best young sportswriter in America.” You and I are about the same age—can we still use quotes like that? And how do you think aging has impacted your skills as a journalist?

D.Z.: Bob—to my eternal gratitude—wrote that about me when I was 30. I stopped using it when I hit 35. At that point, it felt too much, in the words of Chris Rock, like “the old guy at the club,” especially when there are a ton of great young writers out there, writing for sites like Sports on Earth and The Classical, whose laptop I can’t carry.

With John Carlos.

With John Carlos.

J.P.: You ask hard questions, and you don’t seem to take any shit. So how do you prepare for interviews? How to you approach a subject you know will be hostile? And what’s the most heated exchange you’ve had in the course of a Q&A?

D.Z.: It’s just sports. No one is really that intimidating to interview … except for Jim Brown.

J.P.: I see Skip Bayless and I want to vomit. I just don’t get his popularity. Dave, please explain …

D.Z.: He has an enchanting musk.

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH DAVE ZIRIN:

• Celine Dion calls. She offers $20 million for you to spend a year hosting “Edge of Celine radio”—12 hours a day, 365 days a year of coverage solely of her career and greatness. You in?: I once watched all five Rockys in a row as part of a radio contest in high school. The prize was a fake gold chain with a boxing glove on the end. If I could do that shit for a piece of jewelry that turned my neck green, then damn right I could do Edge of Celine radio.

• You wrote the Muhammad Ali Handbook. Is Ali’s place as a sort of God-like figure in American-sports culture righteous, or somewhat exaggerated?: It’s altogether ridiculous because what makes Muhammad Ali so awesome is his humanity, his flaws, and the fact that in spite of those, he stood tall when a lot of people needed someone like him to do just that. When we “godify” Muhammad Ali, we create distance between what he did and what any one of us could do: i.e. stand on political principal even if you pay a price.

• What are your three favorite love songs?: I Love You by Mary J. Blige; Blind Alley by The Emotions; How Come You Don’t Call Me Anymore? by Prince.

• You’re the sports editor of The Nation. How much longer does print have in this country?: What time is it right now?

• Five all-time favorite sports names?: 1) Razor Shines; 2) God Shammgod; 3) Dick Tidrow (better than Dick Trickle and the name of a great band); 4) Vladamir Guerrero; 5) World B. Free.

• What’s the outcome of a fistfight between you and Garry Templeton?: Didn’t he hit 30 triples one year? I could knock him out early, but if it goes into the later rounds, I’m toast.

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Willie McGee, The Band Perry, Eric Carr, sleet, boxer-briefs, Target, “The Empire Strikes Back,” Kool G Rap, Geraldine Ferraro, Trident Layers Sugar Free Gum, Moses, wet farts: (leaving off ones I don’t know or had to look up)—Kool G. Rap, Empire Strikes Back, boxer-briefs, Moses, Willie McGee, Geraldine Ferraro, wet farts. Trident Layers Sugar Free Gum, Target, sleet.

• One question you’d ask Stephen Pearcy were he here right now?: Did you ever party with Milton Berle?

• I love this song. Your thoughts?: Without the girl in the bumblebee costume, I couldn’t say focused on the music.

• I’m 42. Were I single, what’s the youngest woman I could date without being pathetic?: Age is a ridiculous and artificial construct that denies the fact that two people can just have a connection regardless of  the happenstance of when they were born into this crazy world … Oh, it’s 34.

Showtime Book
Love Me, Hate Me Barry Bonds Book
Sweetness Walter Peyton Book
The Bad Guys Won Book
The Rocket that Fell to Earth Book
Boys Will Be Boys Book

Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life