By Kris Stewart
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A People’s History of Sports in the United States

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Dave Zirin, The New Press, £14.99
Issue 343

Dave Zirin is a US columnist known for his writing on the politics of sport. He identifies himself as a socialist – his contribution to a recent forum in The Nation on the future of the left included: “Let’s boldly say that ordinary people have the capacity for extraordinary deeds and can run society far more effectively than those who have been looting their pensions and destroying their jobs.”

In this book Zirin traces the history of US sport through the stories of ordinary people, all the time pointing to how people and events are shaped by the society around them.

The book begins with the Choctaw Indians playing lacrosse and ends with a new generation of athletes becoming politicised over police and state racism in Louisiana. Along the way we see how independence and the civil war helped the growth of sports such as baseball – itself given an entirely fictitious origin story in pursuit of marketing.

Zirin then takes us through the 1920s and 30s, through some stories we already know and some which will be new to many. The rise of the reborn Ku Klux Klan, the Negro National League, the Black Literary Renaissance, the Communist Party’s Chicago Counter-Olympics of 1932, Jesse Owens at Munich – even the familiar tales are given a new slant.

The 1950s saw battles against McCarthyism. The chapter on the 1960s covers the civil rights and anti-war movements, and the black power salutes in Mexico City. The advances of the 1970s are followed by the defeats of the 1980s. The 1990s see the continuing commercialisation and de-politicisation of sport.

Importantly, Zirin doesn’t stop there. The final chapter – in some ways the most important – shows that resistance is still possible and is still happening. The campaigns against bigotry, against the corporate welfarism of stadium construction, and against the war and the co-option of sport in its support should all be an inspiration to us.

This is not a detached, scholarly history book. What Zirin does is to reinforce how artificial the separation of sport and politics is, and how such a separation is always of benefit to the rich and powerful in society.

Of course, there are criticisms which can be made. Zirin’s tendency to quote at length from his sources produces a confused style in places. And for A People’s History there is an over-reliance at times on stars. Nevertheless, this is an entertaining book which serves as an excellent introduction to US sport, as well as to the writing of what the Washington Post calls “the conscience lacking in the mainstream sports media”.

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