“He scores! Henderson!!” The broadcast from Canada’s game-winning goal at the 1972 Summit Series sends chills down any Canadian sports fan’s spine. It has been dubbed the goal of the century, but what makes it such an amazing goal is the circumstances under which it was scored.
More bone-chilling moments, like African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists for black power at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics or Billie Jean King beating Bobby Riggs in the 1973 “Battle of the Sexes,” are instances where the socio-political circumstances surrounding the sports events amplified their importance.
Sports may come with the baggage of racism, sexism, homophobia, nationalism, capitalism and the list goes on, but American journalist Dave Zirin knows that. It’s so easy to see that he does it for a living, he joked.
QPIRG Concordia invited Zirin to Montreal as a part of its annual disOrientation festivities to headline a talk called “The Politics of Sports” on Sept. 21. The talk focused on the problem of separating sports from politics, with the speakers arguing that society must learn to work with sports and combine the two.
Zirin is the author of several books, including his most recent, Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Sports We Love, and runs his own radio show called Edge of Sports. The journalist and commentator has created a niche of his own in the large chasm that is sports broadcasting in America, having meshed his love for sports with an investigative political framework.
“Sports is like fire. Sports can burn down your house or bring you food, it all depends on how you use it,” said Zirin.
Activists must wish that people got as passionate about politics as they did about sports. Any anarchist would probably have drooled at the idea of uniting the crazed Habs fans to raid the mayor’s office instead of the SAQ on Ste-Catherine St. in last year’s National Hockey League playoffs. According to Zirin, sports fans are so passionate because “sports are the closest thing we have to a common language.”
Montrealers know quite well how sports and politics can become one. “The monument to debt” as Zirin called it, stands as a beacon in Montreal’s Hochelaga-Maisonneuve district to remind us just how sports come bearing an extreme financial and political burden on the city. The “Big O[we]” or Olympic Stadium cost a total of $2.4 billion in debt and was finally paid off in 2006 — 30 years after the 1976 Olympics.
“If you’re going to have an international sporting event, do it at the same site, where it’s at the same place every four years, so you don’t have the massive disruption into a city’s life, the accruing of debt and the obstruction of people’s civil liberties,” said Zirin.
Stadiums paid for by taxes are popping up everywhere and have “become a substitute for anything resembling an urban policy in the United States.” Tax money is going to support sports stadiums instead of repairing bridges, roads, hospitals, or revamping poor neighbourhoods.
Zirin spoke of an incident in Minnesota when a local bridge collapsed, killing 13 people, while the same day they were set to break ground on a new stadium worth $400 million of public money.
In Quebec City, there are talks about a new stadium costing the same amount, in addition to $145 million of Canadian taxpayer money that would be needed to bring the Nordiques back. Yet, the team is likely to be bought by Quebecor, a company that has plans to bring conservative television content, or Fox News North, to Canada.
Zirin speculates that Quebecor will use revenue from the Nordiques to finance their own business as many have done before, including the Los Angeles Lakers minority owner who funds his own neo-conservative magazine The Weekly Standard with income from the Lakers.
In response to this “corporate money laundering,” Zirin suggests using a public model like that of the Green Bay Packers, which puts ownership in the hands of the locals instead of a corporation, to bring back “Les Bleus.”
It is up to fans to speak out for the change they wish to see in society and, as history has shown, when there is social unrest, athletes respond. For example, Jackie Robinson and Mohammed Ali were outspoken about racial politics in the 1960s because of the social upheaval in the streets.
Recently, in an unprecedented fashion, the Phoenix Suns came out as a unit by sporting Los Suns jerseys to protest a controversial new law in Arizona in a May 5 NBA matchup. They were responding to widespread protests in the city and across America. The new law enacted this summer, Bill SB 1070, requires immigrants to provide police with their immigration status if they are suspected of being an illegal immigrant. Many have called the bill legalized racial profiling.
The MLB 2011 all-star game, which is to be held in Phoenix, is being targeted by a boycott if the law is not changed.
Mobilization against homophobia in sports has not proven to be as loud. Meg Hewings, the second speaker at the talk, blames the “machismo in sports” for why we don’t hear much about homosexuals and their struggles in sport. Hockey is still “super white” and “super dude-ily,” Hewings noted.
Hewings writes for a blog called hockeydykeincanada.ca and devotes her time to discussing racism, sexism and homophobia in hockey.
On the ice, hockey is macho and brutish. That’s where the saying “I went to a boxing match and a hockey game broke out” comes from.
Off the ice, the hockey dressing room can be a place for homoerotic, and sometimes homophobic, male camaraderie.
“Calling someone a pussy or a fag in the dressing room just isn’t cool,” said Hewings. She, like Zirin, wants to take the problems of sports head-on rather than just disregarding sports altogether as a distraction as critics like Noam Chomsky have suggested.
Some call on sports scandals as a reason to turn on the tube and stay home instead of heading to the local sports game. From Tiger Woods’ sex scandal and recent divorce, to Sean Avery chirping about “sloppy seconds,” sports broadcasters and fans eat up the controversy. Hewings calls it “gossip for men.”
She pointed out the recent criticism of the Canadian Women’s team celebration with beer at the Vancouver Winter Olympics as a perfect example of how the sports media is obsessed with scandal and is sexist.
If it had been men pulling out cigars and throwing back pitchers, as skeleton racer Jon Montgomery did in his gold medal celebration, “it would go down in the books as a legendary moment,” says Hewings.
In fact, the National Post called Montgomery’s celebration “an iconic Canadian thing to do for a freshly crowned Olympic champion.”
Women’s hockey has also come under fire as the International Olympic Committee threatened to eliminate women’s hockey from the Olympics if it does not get more competitive. Considering that Russia only has 300 women enrolled in hockey and it is the location of the next Winter Olympics, there may be reason for this exclusion.
Hewings stated, “I think we should hold mass protests if they don’t [get to play in 2014].”
Protests are not out of the question; no Olympic tournament or professional league for the 85,000 Canadian females registered in hockey is a recipe for outrage.
Evidently, political issues cannot be avoided in sports. As Zirin and Hewings proved in their talks, there are many problems that need to be addressed and many ways to tackle them.