In 1967, Muhammad Ali stood in a building in Texas waiting to be drafted to fight in Vietnam. The induction officer called out the heavyweight champion’s discarded “slave name”: “Cassius Clay!” Ali did not respond, refusing the draft. “Everyone knew about it moments later,” the civil rights leader Julian Bond recalled. “People who had never thought about the war – black and white – began to think it through because of Ali.”
American sport, like American presidential elections, exists largely to tell allegorical stories about America. What Dave Zirin does in his new, wonderful, unashamedly leftwing People’s History of Sports in the United States (The New Press, $26.95) is overturn the usual allegories. Instead he comes up with a new story about sport in this country. In it, familiar heroes such as Ali or Jackie Robinson get surprising roles.
Zirin’s book appears in Howard Zinn’s “People’s History” series, which stars the people who usually get pushed to America’s margins. The approach works well in sport, because the history of American athletes is largely the history of oppressed Americans.
American sport, in Zirin’s account, started out marginal and rough. One sport that flourished after the revolution was rat-baiting: a dog would be thrown into a pit containing 100 rats and people would bet on how many the poor thing could kill. That was about as bloody as early gridiron football. Thirty-three college football players were killed in 1910.
But by then elites, who had initially sniffed at sport, were starting to stamp it with their values. The Yale coach Walter Camp, who also happened to be president of the New Haven Clock Company, reinvented football with an order based “on the factory model”. From then on the sport would teach hard work, obedience and organised violence.
In Zirin’s telling, US professional sports became militarist, racist, nationalist and very commercialised. Athletes were supposed to be “examples of how to succeed through following the rules” – and America’s rulers made the rules. In 1966, writes Zirin, “the American Football League proscribed all facial hair save moustaches”. Three years later the St Louis Cardinals linebacker Dave Meggyesy got benched apparently for being just about the only player in the league to protest against the Vietnam war. Meggyesy said of Richard Nixon: “It’s no accident the most repressive regime in history is ruled by a football freak.”
In sport, the oppressed could fight back. Some of the most potent American allegories came from black versus white boxing matches. The black writer Richard Wright said of one such fight, between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling, that no US playwright could have come up with such “a drama which manipulated the common symbols and impulses in the minds and bodies of millions of people”. In 1910, after the black fighter Jack Johnson had beaten the avowedly white Jim Jeffries, 151 people died in race riots. Zirin calls this “the most widespread racial uprising” in US history until Martin Luther King’s murder.
After the war, when Jackie Robinson became the first black player in baseball’s major leagues, thousands of black spectators showed up at games around the US “to defend him from harm, if necessary, as well as to cheer him on”. People genuinely seem to have felt that sport could be a surrogate, perhaps a foretelling, of racial liberation. Zirin tells these stories by restoring forgotten voices. He fillets dead black newspapers and tracks down the very old Lester Rodney, who in 1936 became the extraordinary sports editor of the communist Daily Worker.
This book is at its best when it overturns the conventional “heritage story” of US sport. Zirin shows that many heroes, such as Ali or Robinson, were not regarded as such in their prime. When Robinson began speaking out about racism late in his playing career, Sport Magazine called him “the most savagely booed, ruthlessly libelled player in the game”. Ali, photographed last month as a sort of mascot to golf’s Ryder Cup teams, was embraced by the mainstream only after Parkinson’s disease silenced his tongue. Even the harmless long-haired quarterback Joe Namath made Nixon’s famed “enemies list”.
From the 1980s, though, the mainstream muted the rebels. Sports grew richer and thus had more money to withhold from any player who misbehaved. The career of Michael Jordan is emblematic. The basketball genius was allowed to amass $400m on the tacit understanding he would not speak out about the racism or poverty from which most US athletes had emerged. Even when the segregationist Republican senator Jesse Helms ran against a black Democrat in Jordan’s home state of North Carolina, Jordan wouldn’t take sides. “Republicans buy sneakers too,” he explained.
His caution was prudent. In 1991, after Jordan’s Chicago Bulls had become national champions, his Muslim teammate Craig Hodges handed President George Bush Snr a letter opposing the Iraq war and
talking about racism in the US. Within a year Hodges had been frozen out of the league.
Today, although most Americans think the current Iraq war was a mistake, only a handful of athletes has come out against it. Anyone who speaks out about anything risks being slapped with the “Just Shut Up” award by the almighty sports channel ESPN. If only Ali could speak.
More columns at www.ft.com/simonkuper