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The Sports Page and the Common Good: On Painting Journalist Dave Zirin

Journalist and author Dave Zirin. (Portrait by Robert Shetterly /

Editor's note: The artist's essay that follows accompanies the 'online unveiling'—exclusive to Common Dreams—of Shetterly's latest painting in his "Americans Who Tell the Truth" portrait series, presenting citizens throughout U.S. history who have courageously engaged in the social, environmental, or economic issues of their time.This painting of sports journalist Dave Zirin is his latest portrait of those who have dedicated their lives to exposing and critiquing systems of power while championing the common good. Posters of this portrait and others are now available at the artist's website.

"Racism is not about hurtful words, bruised feelings, political correctness, or refusing to call short people 'vertically challenged.' Racism is about the power to treat entire groups of people as something less than human—for the benefit of that power. That’s why a Native American sports mascot is far from harmless." —Dave Zirin

A few years ago I wrote the following in an essay for Common Dreams in response to the Super Bowl:

“It would be hard to imagine any ardent advocate of the military/industrial complex not reveling in what the Super Bowl has become—a veritable marketing orgy of violence and consumption—advertisers spending millions per minute to pander to our desire to own more stuff while fighter jets roar overhead reminding us of how the right-to-stuff is protected. Why must a football game become a vehicle for materialism and the power that defends it?”

I had been particularly incensed because just prior to the start of the game a short video was shown narrated by the actor Michael Douglass creating a timeline of iconic American moments. Beginning with the Statue of Liberty, the video flashed images of suffragists marching, an image from the Dust Bowl, Lindbergh, FDR speaking, Amelia Earhart, a landing craft at D-day, the flag raising at Iwo Jima, Rosa Parks, JFK at his inaugural saying, “Ask not….,” MLK, Jr. intoning, “I have a dream…,” Muhammad Ali gesticulating over a downed opponent, the moon landing, John Lennon’s image on a peace poster, Ronald Reagan smiling, someone pick axing the Berlin Wall, the Challenger lifting off, the floods of Katrina, the flag raising at 9/11, Ray Charles… I’m sure I’ve missed a few.

The video’s timeline ended at Super Bowl XLV, as if all our history was leading to this moment, the Super Bowl being another pinnacle of our history on a par with the struggle for civil rights or D-Day. Maybe the point was that the Super Bowl was the pinnacle of our history, the culmination of the quest for freedom. While recognizing how the Super Bowl wallows in materialism and militarism, it’s worthwhile remembering that Dr. King identified three traits of US culture that are leading us to spiritual death—racism, materialism and militarism. The unspoken message of the video was that freedom is materialism and militarism, is corporate power expressed equally through the actions of Halliburton, Exxon, and Rosa Parks.

As I watched this video and ranted at the television, I did not yet know that there was a journalist in this country who had been covering that story – the conflation of sports with money, materialism, militarism, corporatism, and the status quo—for many years. That man is Dave Zirin.

Until I read Zirin’s book, "A People’s History of Sports in the United States," I had not realized how long, and to what degree, the powers that control the sports world had been claiming to be apolitical while the truth was very different. Nor had I realized how many athletes had stood against those powers to demand women’s equality, civil rights, gender rights, social justice, and peace.

Zirin says, for example, “Though Boston fans for decades complained about the ‘curse of the Bambino,’ the curse of racism in fact had a far greater effect.” Red Sox owners had refused to field black players when the other teams did and their racism seriously handicapped them.

He talks a lot about racism in sports, and the quote that is on his portrait is very important in that regard—first, for acknowledging the relationship between racism and power, and, second, encouraging us to think more deeply about the use of Native American names for teams.

So many of us are involved in sports in one way or another and want to love the games, the competition. And we should. But because we want to hold onto a kind of purity in our relation to the sports, to the players and teams we admire, we allow ourselves to ignore the social and economic issues that are part of the fabric of the sports world.

We enjoy seeing our children play these games, but so often, instead of just building character, the world of professional sports is also infusing support for unquestioned militarism, unfettered materialism, and compartmentalization. As a result, our lives as athletes or fans are put at odds with our lives as citizens with perilous impacts on society. Dave Zirin explores those manipulations like no one else, exposes the corporate forces that prefer silence, and honors the athletes with the courage to speak. For that reason I needed to paint his portrait.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

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Robert Shetterly

Robert Shetterly

Robert Shetterly is a writer and artist who lives in Brooksville, Maine and the author of the book, "Americans Who Tell the Truth." Please visit the Americans Who Tell the Truth project's website, where posters of Howard Zinn, Rachel Carson, Edward Snowden, and scores of others are now available. Send Rob an email here.

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