If you are a soccer fan, have even a passing interest in Brazil, or are battling neoliberalism in the streets you should read this book. If you’re struggling to enjoy the World Cup knowing it is paid for on the backs of poor Brazilians, this book won’t make it any easier. But you will walk out with a greater appreciation of the depth of Brazil’s great love of soccer, and its deep societal contradictions because of the country’s aggressive adoption of neoliberal economic policies that gut the public sector for private gain.
Curiously enough, I found Dave Zirin’s latest book, “Brazil’s Dance With the Devil: the World Cup, the Olympics and the Fight for Democracy” in the “Travel” section of San Francisco’s City Lights Bookstore. Not “Sports” or “Politics” or “Sports and Politics”, a genre Zirin carves out through his many books or as the first sports editor of the Nation. Upon reflection, it makes a lot of sense – for many people, their only interaction with Brazil is as a tourist. And Zirin’s new book reads very much as travelogue as he charts his interactions with Brazil’s social movement Left. But as conscious, political people, we know that there’s always another layer. Indeed, the project of Picked Last Sports is to expose that deeper layer of sports, warts and all.
Truthfully, I wish all travel books contained Zirin’s analysis of a country’s social history, political economy, and his keen journalistic observations. Zirin details Brazil’s history from colonization until today with eye towards the stories of Brazil’s most oppressed: the poor, the Black, and the Indigenous. As I learned as a part of my own travel to Belem in 2009 to represent Grassroots Global Justice at the World Social Forum, Brazil has an inspiring history of social justice struggle and strong movements today. I wish I had this book instead of a stack of academic articles in preparation. Zirin doesn’t shy away from drawing comparisons and distinctions between the US and Brazil, likely to help US-based readers like myself understand the similarities in the two countries as nations roiled by the legacies of slave trade but also differentiate the racial ideologies and economic histories of the both.
These histories prove crucial to Zirin’s discussion of the class cleavages evident in Brazilian society. For us as readers, it fills in the political context necessary for understanding the mass uprisings by the Brazilian people against FIFA (the body governing the World Cup), the International Olympic Committee, and the Brazilian government itself. This fills deep holes in most mainstream protest reporting and without a doubt in most sports reporting. These are not just random demonstrations, but the culmination of ordinary Brazilians’ long struggle for democracy, freedom, and economic justice. And in dedicating an entire chapter on Brazil’s charismatic leader Lula, Zirin attempts to answer how a Left political party oversaw the massive land grabs and wealth transfers associated with neoliberal economic policy. The stadium building, eviction and surveillance are just aspects of that strategy.
Zirin retreads some ground if you’ve followed his writing on The Nation or at his site EdgeOfSports.com by reviewing past Olympics and World Cup boondoggles starting with the 2004 Athens. Fans of Zirin can skip these sections, but they are a key part of his searing critique of institutions like the IOC and FIFA. These institutions he argues, reflect and enforce neoliberal policies that demand austerity measures like cutting social services to finance massive building projects.
Counter to these policies is the demands by regular Brazilians for “FIFA quality” schools and hospitals. This is where Dave Zirin is at his best, reporting on the struggles of activists and regular people he meets while putting those street battles in the context of global capitalism. The opposition (hungry developers, overzealous police forces, corrupt politicians) is staggering, but people rise to the challenge nonetheless through street protest, social media, and old-fashioned community organizing. Sadly and unsurprisingly, successes are few and even then temporary. Yet the stories of struggle by regular Brazilians though, thrill and inspire in both detail and scale. From favela residents battling to keep their homes to the million that protested the Confederations Cup in 2013, Zirin reminds us that another world is indeed possible, and oh is it necessary.
“Brazil’s Dance With the Devil: the World Cup, the Olympics and the Fight for Democracy” is essential reading for sports fans, organizers, and people who like books with long-ass names. Get it now at a local book store, or better yet, get it directly from Dave when he visits the Bay Area June 24-25. He’ll be speaking on the 24th 7:00 PM at the Center for Political Education in SF, and again the following night in Oakland on the 25th at 8:00 PM at SoleSpace. You’re in for a treat in Oakland, Picked Last Sports’ own Harjit Singh Gill will be hosting that talk. Get it.
So here it is, you wondered where I was (or more likely, probably didn’t). Dave Zirin spoke last week on 2 occasions here in the Bay Area.
After his San Francisco tour stop, I was able to get 10 minutes of time with him to ask a few questions we’ve been mulling over here on this side of the blog.
We discussed (evil) Marlins ownership, the greater question of how to be a conscious sports fan in this world of wealthy owners who are ruining sports fans, and outspoken athletes in addition to finally settling the long-standing debate of how to say his last name properly.
You can’t tell the story of the Civil Rights movement without talking about Jackie Robinson. And you can’t talk about the history of the 60’s without talking about Ali and Billie Jean King. An now forever more you can’t tell the story of LGBT liberation without talking about Martina Navratilova, Brittney Griner, and now Jason Collins. So it’s a part of our history.
Approximately 10 minutes running time, so a quick view. Thankfully, my good friend David Zlutnick was able to film. Enjoy.
(many thanks to Dave Zirin and David Zlutnick/Upheaval Productions for being a part of this)
Rooting for an NBA team is like rooting for a Fortune 500 company. At the end of the day, it’s still all about one boss against another, capitalist vs. capitalist. A cynic might say that this entire enterprise is nothing but an opiate of the masses. I’d argue that sports, like politics, has gradations of foulness and even as fan-people in the “belly of the beast,” our choices and actions make a difference.
Which brings us back to the question, how evil is your NBA team? Let’s start with some of the remaining playoff teams. This is by no means an exhaustive or comprehensive list, I’d love feedback in the comments about additions or differences of opinion. And if you haven’t already, check out Dave Zirin’s treatise on the subject of bad owners, Bad Sports, How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love.
There’s been much written on this topic from last season, so I’ll refer back to excellent articles on why you’d root for the Heat (players used free agency to their maximum benefit, OKC is even more evil – more on that later) and why you wouldn’t include rooting for the owner Mickey Arison (tax evasion, owing Miami millions). Arison’s political donations roughly split between the D-‘s and R-‘s, no doubt a sign of the shifting politics of South Florida.
Being the favorites this season by far makes it easy to root against LeBron James and Co. Even so, Heat players led the way in the NBA protesting the murder of Trayvon Martin by posing their own hoodie photo. Moments like these don’t make or break a movement, but it is an important boost to the visibility of a fight and there’s something greatly validating to see your sports heroes (and villains!) as people with politics too.
Oklahoma City Thunder
OKC owner Clay Bennett hates Seattle. I can’t imagine why anybody would hate the home of fifty-cent oyster happy hours, but there it is. Prior to moving to OKC, Bennett tried and failed to extort the the city and state of Washington to fund a new arena (voters decided no) and lied about their intentions on keeping the team in Seattle. All this is well documented by angry Sonics fans.
Bennett also donated $7,500 to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in 2012 and since 2009, players and execs on OKC gave at least 70% of their donations to Republican candidates. In total, OKC owners gave $15,000 to Romney. The TrueHoop blog has an great (and fun) video on the Republican and Christian leanings of the organization, which include a pre-game prayer before each home game – something only one other team in the league does.
San Antonio Spurs
Spurs ownership is not progressive (or even liberal) leaning. Owner Peter Holt gave nearly $250k in political contributions, 98% of which went to Republican candidates since 2009. He’s given over $500k to the gubernatorial campaigns of Rick Perry (yuck!). Holt also made his fortune in selling Caterpillar construction equipment, the same equipment weaponized by the Israeli army and then used to demolish Palestinian homes in the West Bank. There are active campaigns for colleges to divest from Caterpillar, to remove the company from socially-conscious investment portfolios and to demand corporate accountability.
In 2010 though, when their then-playoff opponent Phoenix Suns decided to take a stand against the racist and anti-immigrant Arizona legislation SB 1070 that legalized racial profiling (among other ugly, ugly things) the Spurs did support the Suns. The Suns decided to wear their “Los Suns” jerseys and their stars spoke out against the legislation. Spurs coach Greg Popovich had this to say in support of the gesture:
It’s kind of like 9-11 comes and all of a sudden there’s a Patriot Act, just a kneejerk sort of thing that changes our country and what we stand for. This law smacks of that to some degree, so I think what he’s doing tomorrow night is very wise and very correct.
Not surprisingly, Popovich donated $5,000 to the Obama campaign in 2012. Not bad for the former Air Force Academy cadet and coach – a school not known as a bastion of liberal thought. Perhaps it was his short time coaching the Pomona-Pitzer college squad. Pitzer has a reputation for being both the “social justice” and “4:20” Claremont College.
We’ll look at some other teams later this week, but it’s important to note that this isn’t about an “evil Olympics” of any sort. If you dig enough, every team’s got their skeletons and sometimes, things worth cheering for. There’s also the whole “playing ball well” thing too. Bottom-line is that as fans, we ought to know who we’re rooting for, warts and all. Better that than buying the fantasy narratives the NBA and these teams foist on us. I can mix my own Kool-Aid, thank you very much.