The sportswriter once described as “a lightning rod for trouble” will be the first in a series of speakers brought to Lehigh by the university’s MLK Committee. Dave Zirin, sports editor of The Nation magazine, will speak at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 19, in Baker Hall.
Zirin has earned his reputation as a provocateur by being, in the words of one former critic on The Starting Five (TSF) blog, “a white man who boldly stepped into the arena of sports and race and politics—and took the side of the underdog.”
In the words of public intellectual, writer, philosopher and activist Cornel West, Zirin is “the finest, most important writer on sports and politics in America.”
Zirin underscored his reputation for alternative perspectives by authoring eight books on the politics of sports, including People’s History of Sports in the United States: 250 Years of Politics, Protest, People and Play; The Muhammed Ali Handbook; What’s My Name, Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States; and, more recently, Brazil’s Dance with the Devil: The World Cup, the Olympics and the Fight for Democracy.
Zirin is the first in a series of speakers who will come to Lehigh to explore the interplay of race with various issues under the “Race X” theme of Lehigh’s year-long MLK celebration.
MLK Committee organizers say Zirin’s appearance is particularly timely, considering current roiling controversies surrounding the right of NFL players and other professional athletes to protest social injustice.
“Dave Zirin is one of the most important voices in the arena of sports, politics, race and culture,” said James Peterson, the director of Africana Studies and professor of English who is serving as the interim chair of the MLK Committee this semester. “His talk here could not be more relevant, considering the discussion the entire country is engaged in right now around an athlete’s right to use a public forum for protest. Zirin always presents a well-informed understanding and a perspective that challenges us to view these issues in a broader societal context.”
A graduate of Macalester College with a Bachelor of Arts degree in history, Zirin shared career motivation with Minnesota media outlet City Paper when he recently returned to Macalester to speak.
“I grew up an absolutely colossal sports fan and didn't care about politics,” he said. “In 1991, I was in high school and a teammate of mine actually cut out of basketball practice to protest the first Iraq War. He was one of my best friends—still is—and I said to him, ‘Where are your priorities?’ I was pissed. But he went anyway and was assaulted by a police officer, and that pissed me off even more. It rocked me.”
Not long after that, Zirin said he went to a college game at Madison Square Garden, and witnessed “a guy in an Arab costume getting beat up by the team's mascot while the Jumbotron got everyone to chant ‘USA!’ I literally swore off sports. The way sports was being used to push racism and nationalism, and what happened to my friend changed me completely. I finished out the season playing basketball, but I was done watching sports, done relating to it.”
Intrigued by the concept of an “activist athlete,” Zirin came to realize that, “for all of my 'sports knowledge' growing up, it was all statistics, all superficial, juvenile biographies. I wanted to find a book about the activist athlete and found there wasn't one.”
Zirin won the 2015 New York Press Club Award for Sports Journalism, the 2015 National Headliner Award for Online Magazine Writing, and Northeastern University School of Journalism's Excellence in Sports Journalism Award. He was nominated for an NAACP Image Award for his book The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment that Changed the World, and the PEN American Award for literary sports writing.
A frequent guest on ESPN and MSNBC and other national news outlets, Zirin hosts his own weekly Sirius XM show, Edge of Sports Radio, and co-hosts The Collision: Where Sports and Politics Collide, with former NBA player Etan Thomas (available as podcasts).
Zirin also maintains a running commentary on contemporary events through his website, EdgeofSports.com and on Twitter @EdgeofSports.