Dave Zirin Robert Scheer SI Podcast

Looking at the Skeletons Inside the NFL’s Closet

Renowned sports journalist Dave Zirin talks about his latest documentary, which explores the unjust, unfair and deeply racist history of the NFL coupled with its commitment to nationalism, militarism and corporatism.
Dave Zirin. Photo courtesy of davezirin.com

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In the new documentary Behind the Shield: The Power & Politics of the NFL created by Dave Zirin, the trailblazing sports writer and journalist for The Nation magazine breaks down the idea of such an ingrained cultural phenomenon as American football while dissecting the NFL for all its bitter contradictions and failures. From understanding why jets fly over stadiums before games to why the second ever Black coach was only hired in 1989, Zirin dives into the odious history that defines the sport today.

Zirin joins host Robert Scheer on Scheer Intelligence this week to further dive into some of the crucial yet often overlooked history of not only football, but sports in general in the United States. Zirin, as a sports fan himself, understands the hype and understands why millions and even billions tune in to watch their favorite teams battle it out on the field, pitch, court or diamond. That very passion and excitement, however, is exactly what is exploited from fans and Zirin says this is “why the platform is so heavily policed and why so much care is taken by the people who really run sports—the billionaire owners—to make sure that that platform is not used to speak about things that can either interrupt the profit machine or challenge their own right wing politics. And they’re acutely aware of how strong that platform is and how powerful that platform is.”

As for the NFL specifically, Zirin emphasizes that the integration of politics did not start in 2016 with Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem, but rather has been a backbone of the sport and business since its inception. “…The league has been political for decades. Whether you’re talking about the militarism that exploded after 9/11, whether you’re talking about the militarism during the Vietnam War period that the league happily attached itself to…They had formal relationships with the Pentagon about how they should be used for recruiting and for morale, both in Vietnam and then in the post-9/11 period,” Zirin says.

The details that surround the racism, classism, sexism and any other forms of bigotry that were part of the foundation of many franchises often elude fans. But Zirin says once you start asking and answering these important questions and addressing the contradictions, “it really is like pulling the string on a sweater as it slowly unravels and you start learning a lot more about power, about bigotry, about exploitation. It unfurls itself in front of you. But at the same time, how do [the leagues] survive if they’re so blatantly hypocritical and paradoxical and all the rest of it? They survive because of a compliant media.”

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Robert Scheer


Joshua Scheer


Robert Scheer: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guest, and that is David Zirin today. And I have, I’ve never met the guy before doing this, but I’ve been a big fan. And what I love about his writing is he respects sports, but he talks about the politics of sports, the social implication issues and so forth. But deep down, you know, he knows why people go watch games and he knows why they play and the good side, but he also knows the bad side, the hypocrisy. And he’s produced, directed and I forget all the titles here, what I think is the best documentary on sports that I’ve seen in a long time. We’ve had a few you know, League of Denial was a good one on concussions there’s been some, I’m not taking anything away from the others. I’ve had people on this show who produced films. I had a very good one on the whole question of Black athletes [indistinguishable] the credit, but they’re on our list. But this one called Behind the Shield takes on and he defines football as really America’s supportive sport. He talks about baseball as geriatric and old, you know. And yeah, basketball. I love basketball. I was supposed to a Laker game right now, but I’m doing this instead. Okay. So it’s a form of [indistinguishable]. But the fact of the matter is football contains the ideology, it contains the profit. And it is about, let me just quote from a description of your movie. It says in Behind the Shield, celebrated author and Nation Magazine, The Nation is the nation’s oldest continuously publishing—Katrina vanden Heuvel always reminds me to say that—periodical in America and you did something The Nation really needed because it was too preoccupied with some of the drier stuff, you brought sports into The Nation. So he’s as I say, celebrated author and Nation magazine sports editor. And in this documentary, it tackles the myth that the NFL was somehow free of politics before Colin Kaepernick and other Black NFL players took a knee, digging deep into the history of the league and navigating a stunning excavation of decades of archival footage and news media. Zirin traces how the NFL, under the guise of sticking to sports, and that’s why I’m reading this, because I actually agree with every word of it. And this phony thing of, Oh, just play the game just to entertain the customers, sticking to sports has actually, I stuck in actually, has promoted wars, militarism and nationalism, glorified reactionary ideas about manhood and gender roles, normalize systemic racism, corporate greed and crony capitalism, and how it vilified challenges to the dominant order as unpatriotic and inappropriately political. And, you know, I want to confess to my own hypocrisy. I was an Oakland Raider season ticket holder for, I don’t know, four decades, even when we stuck with them, when they went to L.A., stuck with them when they went back and you know, Gruden, their coach, was awful on these very issues. There’s a lot of tension, even though the Raiders claimed to be progressive in other ways, they had hired the first Hispanic and Black coaches and so forth. So okay end of my own lecture in my own hypocrisy, I’m a sucker for all of this stuff. But your book, your book tells us something really important, and we sent it on the shield of the NFL. So take it from there. 

Dave Zirin: Yeah. First of all, it’s great to be on the show. Thank you so much for having me. The film is, in fact, available if people want to check it out at BehindtheShieldmovie.com. It is a total, as you said, excavation of the National Football League. And the way this came about is that I was approached by the Media Education Foundation about helping them produce, write, direct a film and they said, we just want it to be about something sports related, what are you thinking about these days? And honestly, what I was thinking about was the fact that every other sport pales in popularity to the National Football League, not just sports. Every possible diversion or entertainment in the United States pales to the National Football League. Now, that’s really amazing, if you think about it. 

Scheer: Can I just interrupt for one second. 

Zirin: Oh, please. 

Scheer: But you have in your film John Lennon saying, yeah, rock concerts are a big deal, but, and he’s at a football game, nothing like that, so I just had to throw that in. 

Zirin: Yeah. No, that’s great. It’s just because it’s part of when we’re talking about the spectacle of Monday Night Football and what that did to the whole operation. And it’s like they say, here we are, Howard Cosell with a special guest. And then there’s John Lennon. And it’s he says it’s 100 times better than our rock concerts, and it is just one of the things when we found that little piece of archive footage and credit to Jeremy Earp and Loretta Alper, who did so much of the archive work in addition to direction and production and writing and everything, it’s just, it was just an amazing moment that showed how the power of the NFL, the cultural power, really was starting to build in the 1970s. And you could argue that some of its popularity in that time was as a reaction to the movements of the 1960s, like men attaching themselves to something that had a sort of brute force patriotism that a sport like baseball could not touch, and basketball being seen as too associated with the Black community. So I wonder sometimes about the growth of football in the 1970s, in the context of the beginnings of deindustrialization and in the context of  new groups who were previously marginalized contesting for power. But that’s a whole other question. The thing about the National Football League that I found so fascinating is, Bob, if you think about other sports or if you think about music, I mean, all of the individual audiences are smaller than they were a generation ago because there’s so many other choices, so many channels, so many options. But in that period where audiences have been sliced and diced, the NFL audience has gotten bigger. That’s amazingly counterintuitive for how our culture is going. So it really is the last entertainment monoculture in the United States, really, other than you could argue elections. And I think that made it the film for me, that I said to the Media Education Foundation, this is the film I want to do. We got to do something about the National Football League because you can’t talk about sports without talking about the National Football League and its effects on the culture. 

Scheer: You know, it’s interesting in that respect because, you know, television obviously nowadays is very dependent upon live sports because otherwise people are going to tape it, ignore the commercials. I teach in school of communication and journalism at USC and, you know, painfully aware of that. And because people want to follow it in real time, they’ll actually put up with the ads. So it’s a big, big profit center. It’s a big profit center for educational institutions like USC, where they could hire a coach for, what, ten, 12 million—it’s a secret— a year! I mean, what are we talking about here? And, you know, and the point about football, I mean, you say in the documentary but, you know, basketball, which is I guess the next big cash support, you refer to baseball as a geriatric sport. So it goes on too long. But I actually like baseball… 

Zirin: I love baseball. 

Scheer: I like it because it’s boring. And you can talk to the people you went with and you don’t have to pay attention and so forth. People are… 

Zirin: Excited for it. 

Scheer: Basketball, which I love, you know, the fact is, it doesn’t make as much money, you know, not in the same league as football. But I think in your film, what struck me is you say, wait a minute, it’s not just a question of a spectacle. This is a spectacle of violence. You know, and that’s why concussions are so, you know, there’s a very good documentary I referred to, League of Denial. It is designed and so it’s a natural fit for the military. 

Zirin: Exactly. And that’s why the first thing we cover in Behind the Shield is we want to explode the lie that the league only got political because Black athletes started putting a knee on the ground and raising their voice against police violence. This is a lie that it was the players who imposed politics on the league because the league has been political for decades. Whether you’re talking about the militarism that exploded after 9/11, whether you’re talking about the militarism during the Vietnam War period that the league happily attached itself to, it’s not just that it represented or reflected war. It’s that they had formal relationships with the Pentagon about how they should be used for recruiting and for morale, both in Vietnam and then in the post-9/11 period. So the idea and then, of course, corporatism, sexism with the cheerleaders and whatnot, and that sexism, as I talk about in the film, still really does pervade the top corridors of the National Football League. It’s just a moral sewer, the higher up you get on the food chain of this league. But that’s what we’re up against, this very powerful, very hypocritical institution. And it’s so important to call that aspect of it out, because when they say don’t mix sports and politics, what they’re really trying to say is don’t mix sports and a certain kind of politics. They don’t want their politics center stage. I mean, they want their politics center stage, they don’t want the politics of players, particularly Black players, pushing them off the political stage. That makes them extremely uncomfortable, the right wing cabal of NFL owners who are really in charge. 

Scheer: You know, it’s interesting in that regard because racism was built into American sports from the beginning and was not called out. I mean, the idea that our national pastime was a strictly segregated white only activity, baseball. And so Jackie Robinson came in. I always ask my students, how could that be? First of all, with the exception, Saint Louis, I guess was the southernmost team and which was the most racist team. But the fact of the matter is we accept it as normal right through World War II. Well, first of all, we accepted a segregated armed forces and then we accepted a segregated national pastime that was racist. So any idea if you bring up race in the context of sports, I mean, you’re only admitting history. You look at the ownership in your documentary. It’s all white. You know, if you look at the selection. Could you be a quarterback? That was a long time coming. Who’s going to be a coach? A long time coming for some change. So the movie, I want to be very clear about this, this documentary is not you know some nasty person who never watches sports complaining about it. You know, the sports are great, they’re attractive, they’re appealing, and we all do it. You don’t have to. I’m a pretty old guy. I have to stop myself from shooting some baskets and so forth. And you get very carried away. I get depressed, you know, and so forth, the team I’m watching… But what you’re doing, you’re not bringing politics to sports as a writer any more than Colin Kaepernick brought it as a player. You can’t talk about it. Why do you have the planes flying above? You know, why did and when you know, I started watching your movie, I’m sorry, it has not gotten the publicity it deserved. So I only learned about the movie because Mary Tillman, the mother of Pat Tillman, who was exploited and after he was killed by so-called friendly fire in Afghanistan and his brother Kevin was there with him and his mother said, you should really watch this great movie it’s really important insight into what the NFL is. So I watched it. So did my wife, who wrote a book with Mary Tillman. But there was an example of what they do all the time. You know, they want to use sports to exploit a certain view that if the players stop and say, as they did in the case of taking a knee, because wait a minute, there’s all this violence against the Black community. And in your movie, you point out all of these players come from that community and you’re expecting them to be indifferent to this. 

Zirin: Exactly. No, that’s exactly right. And I thought, first of all, the bravery and courage of Mary Tillman, Pat’s brother Kevin Tillman, and their multi-year fight to wring the truth out of this government as to what happened to Pat has been very inspiring and courageous. What hasn’t been inspiring and courageous is the fact that the NFL, with all of its political clout and political connections, never lifted a finger to help the Tillman family, while at the same time using the image of Pat Tillman to project their own military friendly image and to make the players seem even more heroic. That’s what Pat Tillman was used for. And I can say this as somebody who’s interviewed so many people who were around Pat Tillman as he came of age, that’s not Pat. Like he never would have wanted to be held up or held out as something somehow unique and special and courageous. He certainly wouldn’t want to be exploited for the NFL’s ends. And I think that’s why Pat’s mom, Mary, was very attracted to the film, because I think it explains why a league would do something like that. And I think we have to ask that with the same amount of shock and outrage that you ask your class, why did it take until 1947 for Jackie Robinson to integrate Major League Baseball like and to really pose it like that? Like why? How does that make sense to you? And it’s the same thing with this because once you start to answer the question, why wouldn’t the NFL help the Tillman family as they desperately searched for answers? And once you are able to answer that question, it really is like pulling the string on a sweater as it slowly unravels and you start learning a lot more about power, about bigotry, about exploitation. It unfurls itself in front of you. But at the same time, how do they survive if they’re so blatantly hypocritical and paradoxical and all the rest of it, they survive because of a compliant media. And that’s why the film is basically, if you think about it, a collection of facts. In this particular time capsule of the 2010s and of course, we go through the history as well. And yet it’s being seen as something sort of new and bracing to so many people. And that, to me in and of itself, is a condemnation of not all of the media by any stretch, but a lot of the media that covers this league. 

Scheer: Well, you know, the Tillman case came up in the most recent Super Bowl. And they have a good charity which gives out scholarship money and so forth. But the story was once again told as an unvarnished achievement of super American patriotism, which, of course, you know, this knee jerk thing. So the coin toss was done by the foundation, but there was no mention of, you know, the true tragedy of this, was that Pat Tillman and his brother, Kevin, volunteered to go into the Army forces because they you know, after the 9/11 attack, they said people in our family have always fought, you know, and Mary Tillman talked about all of their relatives on both sides of the family. And it shouldn’t be just people who don’t have good jobs that volunteer. You know, we’re going to set an example. They were sent to Iraq, which they didn’t believe in, and they were there and actually involved in the fabrication of the Jessica Lynch story as the female Rambo. They were outside and she was not being maltreated by Iraqi doctors. It was another major fraud. She fortunately wrote a book speaking honestly about what happened. So really, let’s talk about the basic assumption of the documentary, which is the use of sports as a major vehicle of propaganda. You know, we’d be really angry if Russia was doing well in soccer or something. And Putin was advertising this as heroic patriotic terms to get support for, you know, for attacking Ukraine or something. I mean, then we say that is blatant, or if the Chinese do it around some of their ads. But here you have it tell us, take us into that. What is this whole mythology about the sports and how it’s used particularly around football? 

Zirin: Well, I mean, you said it, Bob. I mean, sports are exciting. Sports are fun. Sports are amazing to participate in as well as amazing to watch. I know sports aren’t always a great experience for everybody. And it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but for people who are sports fans and I guess I’m speaking directly to them and about them, sports completes us in a way that other aspects of our culture just do not. And satisfies us in a way that maybe other aspects of the culture do not. And sports is something that’s always been a part of humanity. I think that’s one of the reasons why this has been passed down from eras that we think of as Cro-Magnon. I mean, we’re talking about as soon as people were able to clothe themselves and feed themselves, they came up with games that they could play. And I think that’s what speaks to why sports, why the platform is so heavily policed and why so much care is taken by the people who really run sports, the billionaire owners, to make sure that that platform is not used to speak about things that can either interrupt the profit machine or challenge their own right wing politics. And they’re acutely aware of how strong that platform is and how powerful that platform is. They’re acutely aware of that. I’m acutely aware of what Jackie Robinson meant to the civil rights movement or Muhammad Ali to the 1960s, or Billie Jean King to the women’s liberation movement. I mean, so many athletes with LGBTQ struggle and of course, the recent Black Lives Matter struggle, you can’t speak about them without speaking about the WNBA or, of course, Colin Kaepernick. I mean, it runs so deep, like that intertwining of sports and resistance politics in this country. And if I could, you ask why that’s the case. I mean, sports are popular because they’re awesome, but sports are also political because as soon as we started to organize sports in this country, the marginalized populations who were being kept off the field, fought to get on the field. And that immediately politicized the atmosphere of sports, women, people of color trying to get a foothold in this incredible thing of the late 19th century, organized sports. Yet they were kept out of it. So they had to fight to get their share of it. And that’s why it’s always been so political, this world of sports, because it operates on the assumption of the myth of inclusion, but the reality of exclusion. 

Scheer: You know, one reason I do these podcasts, full confession, is I learn. That’s why I like teaching. I do get paid for teaching, but I learn. I learned from your documentary because maybe I should have noted I’m an old enough guy to have actually gone to original American Football League games and so forth. So I’m at Yankee Stadium watching football. But in your documentary, you give a real great sense of history. I mean, I don’t know how you got to use all these clips. It’s something about at the end about fair use or something, but this is the best collection of what the archeology of the whole thing that I’ve seen you just have done, or whoever your team there had some great work in excavating. And it was I didn’t realize until I watched your documentary that, yes, football started as an elite like, you know, a college Ivy League college kind of thing, you know, manhood and well, you know, that was very big. So we can run the world because we’re rich and we have to also be strong and climb mountains and so forth. But then in its professional manifestation, as opposed to baseball, which also had a Negro League and all that and Satchel Paige and everything. However, in football, you mentioned in your documentary early football players who were black. Yeah. So they had to be then excluded when the professional started taking over. And one of the prominent ones was, you know, a great singer as we remember Paul Robeson but he was an all American football player and I believe academic scholar at Rutgers and not an Ivy League school, but they had once a very good football team, well the Ivy League schools, don’t even do it anymore because that’s not their thing. But he ran out. I think he’s probably the first prominent player to speak out politically. And so, you know, somebody who’s been buried in memory. But, you know, in Black History Month, we just came through. Should be mentioned any time. And so take us through that beginning how Black football players were and then they were excluded and certainly excluded from what were called the talent positions and coaches.

Zirin: I mean, the entire football history reflects probably as sharp as any sport what I was talking about before, about the myth of inclusion and the reality of exclusion, because football was a sport that came of age originally as an integrated sport, as you said. I mean, the great Fritz Pollard was a coach in the National Football League, a championship coach, but then you wouldn’t see another Black coach in the National Football League until your Oakland Raiders hired Art Shell. In the early 1990s. I mean, so that’s how long it took from the twenties to the early nineties before you had a second Black coach in the National Football League. And of course this has been an issue in recent years as it has gotten positively embarrassing and there have been lawsuits because there’s so much racism in the upper echelons of the National Football League. But the story as it goes is the Fritz Pollard’s and Paul Robeson’s of the world. And we’re prevented from playing because there was one owner in particular, George Preston Marshall, who is just a stone cold racist. And so in 1934, first he owned the Boston Braves and then he moved them to Washington and named them after a racial slur that I’m sure people are familiar with, the ubiquitous racial slur that adorns the name in the nation’s capital. Now they’re called the Washington Commanders, and we are grateful for that. As I live in the Washington, D.C. area here. 

Scheer: But not beat around the bush because your documentary doesn’t. And the Redskins is defined in your movie, what was the scalping? It was a, you know, not just racist, it was the most viciously genocidal destruction of a people. So if you can talk about your documentary by name, we could do it here. 

Zirin: Redskin, absolutely. And you know, the great sportswriter Tony Kornheiser once said, if they only change the mascot to a potato, all the fighting would stop. But obviously, I get it. This is a little joke, but this is something that George Preston Marshall, first of all, he was a racist and to end that part of the story, 1934, he’s a white supremacist. He basically makes the league all white. And that’s the way it is for about 13 years until people like Jackie Robinson’s roommate, Kenny Washington, his UCLA roommate, as well as Bill Willis and a guy who became a Hollywood actor in Spartacus, Woody Strode broke the color line in the National Football League. And all the teams then started to bring in Black athletes except for one, the Washington Redskins, owned by George Preston Marshall. George Preston Marshall wanted his team to be the team of Dixie because at the time they were the southernmost team in the United States. So some of it was marketing directly to White Dixie and saying, this is your all white team named after a racial slur, fun for the whole family. And that was why he kept, but that plus his own racism, was why he kept the club all white. And it stayed that way until a threat from the Kennedy administration that they were going to seize their stadium, take it away because it was on federal lands unless they integrated the team. Now, this isn’t because Kennedy was some grand far-seeing believer in racial reconciliation and justice, but much more because it was embarrassing during the Cold War that the team in the nation’s capital was having pickets of support in front of it by the American Nazi Party and the Ku Klux Klan. And their slogan was “Keep the Redskins white.” Like that was just way too embarrassing given the Cold War and the fight between the United States and the USSR to gain the affection of the newly liberated countries of Africa and Latin America. So this was a big deal. A very big deal. And so George Preston Marshall finally, reluctantly integrated his team, although sportswriter Shirley Povich said the team had actually been integrated years before by Jim Brown when he ran through them so hard that they were forcibly integrated, which is a little joke from Shirley Povich. But to take it to the Washington football team, George Preston Marshall, when he died in 1969, had put it in his will that he didn’t want any of his foundation money to ever go to an organization that promoted miscegenation, race mixing. I mean, this is 1969 we’re talking about. And George Preston Marshall is in the National Football League Hall of Fame.

Scheer: You mentioned Jim Brown. I happened to spend a year at Syracuse. This is a strong football power where Jim Brown played. And then I guess Ernie Davis was another big contender. And what struck me there was when I went there for graduate school there was a ghetto area. Dining, you know, and actually at USC, where I teach now, there were the ghetto steps where Black football players congregated. And even on the college level, certainly when you got both this sport that now and your documentary goes through that because there is a claim and correct that there is a mixing and there’s been change and there’s been progress and so forth, but you couldn’t be an athlete in any sport without being aware of racism. Aside from where you came from in your own community and what’s happening to other people, you went to school. I mean, when the Lakers, who I have season tickets for, came here, my wife did a book on the Lakers. She pointed out there was a rule in the NBA, you can only have two Black players. The unwritten rule when they came from your Minnesota, I guess they stole them, right? 

Zirin: Yes. 

Scheer: Yeah. And so, you know, racism, which is the big issue in your movie. Yes. We have militarism and we have, you know, gender bias and a lot of misogyny, a lot of stuff and violence. So but where it really hits the road is Black players saying, wait a minute, there are these riots, police riots going on in our cities, You know, and we’ve got to say something about it. And what is this great glorification of a united America that’s being torn apart in reality? Well, these players knew the history of their sports. They knew that they were not bringing racism into it. They were challenging racism that was still prevalent. I mean, you know, I mean, this is, to my mind, what’s so mind boggling about it, I mean, as somebody… I did an interview with Jim Brown for the L.A. Times when I worked there. And, you know, this guy, you know, just like LeBron James didn’t need any lectures from anybody else about racism in America. You know, you’re a Black male in America and, you know, racism, you know, through your family and so forth. So let’s talk about that and wrap this up with the Kaepernick case, because that was kind of the trigger for your documentary, you or whoever, you know, doing this. You just said, wait a minute, wait a minute. And then, yes, you brought up the Olympics in ’68 and this year you brought up a lot. But, my God, if there’s one issue in which the owners and the designers of professional sports. You know what, they introduced racism. I mean, there it is. You know, there’s something absurd about saying just play the game, but let’s watch the airplanes. Let’s celebrate this. And then what? Deny what you said, you know, it took you all these years to get yet another Black culture, that Blacks could be a quarterback. That very idea that Blacks did not have the smarts to play in certain positions was actually accepted as a fact. 

Zirin: Yeah and there still are people… 

Scheer: You know these sportswriters, you know, the conversation, you know, and I want to sort of wrap this up with one big question for you. And it concerns media. You know, and it’s a question I always raise about baseball and everything. Where was The New York Times when the Yankees were pristine and late to integrate? Where were the newspapers, the sportswriters? How could and there’s one person you mentioned, I hope this doesn’t, you know, freak people out, but there’s one person that, actually I looked them up today because I was inspired by your movie, Lester Rodney. He was a sportswriter for The Daily Worker, you know, which in the thirties, his father’s business had gone bankrupt, he was a student, you know, he became the sportswriter. He was… there was this communist paper that they didn’t have sports. They should have it. He’s doing it. And he turns out to be one of the few people around that actually mention that, you know, hey, you know, baseball is segregated and then wrote a letter, you know, to the head of the league, published a letter. How could this be? But basically, it was what, an inconvenient truth. And then the people just did not want to address. 

Zirin: That’s right. Absolutely right.

Scheer: Tell me about your profession as a sports writer. How did they do it? 

Zirin: I mean, because there is this need to basically be a company worker. I mean, you think about the old company towns, the mining towns, and how if you had a job, every store was a company store. Everything, you know, a script was used, a company script. That’s what establishment sportswriting is really like. You know, it’s like you’re part of the company town, the team being the company town and you’re the company writer. So you can write some exposes, but there are limits to how much you can write because you depend upon the team for access and for your job because you’re not much use to your media publication if nobody will talk to you and if nobody will get you access. It’s all about access for a lot of these guys. But that’s been really usurped by social media, by people who can do things that weren’t, that we haven’t been able to do in decades, like carry on the spirit of Lester Rodney, who wrote so much amazing sportswriting in the 1930s for The Daily Worker, who I was fortunate enough to know at the very end of his life, Lester lived well into his nineties and he was sharp as a tack and he had so many great stories about attending Joe Louis Max Schmeling, the most famous boxing match of the 20th century, and agitating for the integration of Major League Baseball. That kind of sportswriting is back and I am thrilled about that. But it really took social media cracking that old media that exactly is what you’re talking about. For us to even begin to have the oxygen, to have the discussion of what sports writing can be. 

Scheer: You know, this, I think, is the optimism of your documentary. And, you know, you see it. I mean, come on. We just went in February and well, the Laker games to me, I mean, are an education, you know, there were clips, there were scenes, comments right there. You know, what’s no longer Staples Center, what is the, you know, funny money. 

Zirin: Crypto. 

Scheer: Crypto, Yeah. So to me, it’s still Staples Center. So but again, company town, the L.A. Times got in trouble because they were in partnership with Staples Center to cover and they made money off the building of the center. That stuff always takes place, you know, but this company town thing is really important. You want to root for the home team. And yet, since sports are so important in our lives, our education, what we want to be, what is manliness, what do you know, what are the values? Because that’s the claim made for it, right? Why are we so big on the college level? Sports? That’s where we get together. And it’s true, if your teams are integrated racially and class wise and so forth, if you have female sports as well as male sports, if they’re in fact kept, you know, amateur. But if you’ve got to reward people, don’t just reward the university. Let them get some of the proceeds. You know it so student athletes can get paid. These are all issues. So the idea that to describe the world of sports without issue as just a game is nonsense. And that’s what broke with social media. You’re absolutely, I mean I think a very important observation, and actually the fans are involved even when they’re being reactionary about it, because immediately somebody says, what are you talking about? You know, is this life? If it’s life, let’s talk about, you know, what are the chances for a Black kid coming out of a neighborhood or a brown kid, you know, here in L.A., you know, and why are the resources being put there? And what about the homeless? And should we have the Olympics here, the next Olympics? Right. There’s already a debate in this town about that. You know, and the last Olympics were not so great. What are you going to do, gentrify? Move everybody out? But yeah, so what is great about the current situation and the fact that you can make this documentary, what is the name again? Behind the Shield. 

Zirin: Behind the Shield. 

Scheer: Yeah. And you know, is that you can’t cover it up anymore and you got the figure of what’s his name Goodell from the NFL you know shifting positions and that’s what we’ve seen now it’s wide open. I’m not saying they’ve solved the problem yet, but the fact of the matter is debate is now normal. 

Zirin: Exactly.

Scheer: And so let’s end on a positive note. I mean, because there are so many issues like that on the college level, why should all the money go to the university or the networks? And what about the student athletes and, you know, all sorts of things that your documentary gets into. You know, what is the image we’re promoting? But at least if there’s debate about it and I mean, I guess my basic question to you is the cat out of the bag? Can you stifle that debate? Will sportswriting be different? Will there be other Dave Zirin’s? I mean, you know, every time you talk to a glass ceiling person, I mean, so, you know, a trend, somebody who broke the mold, which you are that person and your film is a tribute really to your life work. I want to put that out there. You know, you’ve been this lone crusader. Is it going to change now? Is it going to be better? 

Zirin: Oh, it’s changing in a big way. And it’s an amazing thing to have seen over the I guess, 20 years I’ve been doing this, darn near 20 years. And it’s been remarkable to go from feeling very lonely like a fish flapping around in a puddle to seeing not only more fish, but a much bigger lake, a much bigger pond. It’s an amazing thing to witness and it’s beautiful. A thousand flowers are blooming. We just have to pay attention. Check them out. 

Scheer: That’s a good note on which to end this. You know, by the way, we haven’t given enough credit. Uh, you know, by the way, at the end of the show, I will mention that the publisher of The Nation, also in memory of her mother, has a foundation, and they give us some support. I’ll actually mention it now, but I want to say what you’ve done with The Nation, and I’m not putting them down, but it was know kind of a stodgier, political… and which, you know, well read people, not just The Nation, but The Times, everybody else didn’t really discuss sports as a major social driver, as a way of forming our culture. That is the major sociological reality and analysis and your writing, your work, at The Nation, as sports writer, give them credit for hiring you, has been uniquely important because nobody can question your smarts, your knowledge and your love of the sports. I’m not flattering you. I’m trying to promote this film because it comes across in the film and in this documentary, you know, Behind The Shield. You’re not some Luddite putting down the machinery of sports. You understand why we go. You understand why I would rather, frankly, have gone to the Lakers game right now if they win. I don’t mean rather, but we could have done this tomorrow. But you got some medical issue with your dog. I forget the reason. 

Zirin: And my dog has to see a cardiologist. 

Scheer: Yeah, I don’t want to trivialize it either, but I’m just saying normally on a Sunday afternoon, I would have been there watching that game and I don’t want to be a hypocrite about it. And, you know, and I like sports and even though I’m not a great athlete, I’ve played them all my life and I accept what you say in the film and what you have said here. Whether you like sports or not, you cannot deny the power of sports to define our culture. That’s what John Lennon said. Yeah, yeah, a rock concert, concerts, a big deal and I was a big deal. But wow, Monday Night Football and he was early to the party. Wow. This is really something. And what is the Super Bowl? The Super Bowl is America’s what, you know, homage to the gods or something? Right? I mean, it just goes down or up one year or another. It’s incredible. And there is a false claim of being political, which is what this movie is all about because it was political from day one. And what you’ve got is what Leonard Cohen describes in one of his songs, there’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets through. You got so dependent and so many Black athletes, you know, in the cash sports that you could not continue to dehumanize Black people. That’s what racism does. You know, hey, they come in all sizes and shapes and attitudes. Oh, they’re human. Let’s normalize it. And that’s really what we’re talking about, people speaking up out of their experience or, you know, their rights and so forth. And it was triggered by the Black Lives Matter movement and most recently. And so I just want to thank you for your work, and I want to get people to watch this. And if you happen to be at a college, which is why I can assign it in the next few weeks, this Kanopy is pretty good because it means the whole student body probably has free access. I don’t know if that hurts your income, but, you know, so what?

Zirin: I just want people to see it, Bob.

Scheer: Yeah, Behind the Shield. So that’s enough praise here. But I do think it’s really the best thing that I’ve seen summarizing all the contradictions and issues and the appeal of sports. I want to thank Laura Kondourajian and Christopher Ho at KCRW, the NPR station in Santa Monica, for getting our shows posted. Joshua Scheer, our executive producer, who is a sports nut and used to do Sports Byline and commenting on all this, who got you to do this show. Diego Ramos, who writes the intro, and Max Jones, who puts it up on video. And as I said before, the JKW Foundation, which in the memory of Jean Stein, a terrifically important writer, a great human being, helps support these shows. See you next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence. 

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