In the 1960s, you could tell a lot about a media outlet by how they referred to the most well-known athlete of the era. It may come as a surprise to a whole generation that many sportswriters and sportscasters called boxer Muhammad Ali by his birth name, Cassius Clay, several years after the heavyweight champ changed his name.
When Ali fought Floyd Patterson, also African-American, Patterson said, “This fight is a crusade to reclaim the title from Black Muslims.” Ali easily defeated Patterson, chanting, “What’s my name? Is my name Clay? What’s my name, fool?” as he pummeled his opponent for nine rounds.
Dave Zirin’s book, What’s My Name, Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States, chronicles athletes like Ali who stood up to the status quo. It also examines the narrowing divide today between the sports world and the so-called real world. Zirin rejects the notion that we ought to welcome national anthems, pro-military gestures, and players thanking their savior in post-game interviews while crtiticizing, as too political, athletes who speak out against the war or racism.
The appearance of Ali, who was stripped of his title for refusing induction into the military, on the cover of Zirin’s book is particularly important. Ali explained his refusal with “I ain’t got no quarrel with the Viet Cong.” Contrast that to basketball superstar Michael Jordan in the 1990s, when he was asked to endorse a Black candidate running against long-time segregationist senator and fellow North Carolinian Jesse Helms. “Republicans buy shoes too,” said Jordan, as much a cultural icon as Ali, but a man who never met a commercial endorsement he didn’t like.
But while Jordan sells his Nike shoes, Zirin writes that there are echoes of a new sporting resistance. The new mood is represented by people like NBA Most Valuable Player Steve Nash, who was critical of the war in Iraq; Toni Smith, the center of the Division III Manhattanville College women’s basketball team, who refused to stand for the national anthem in her senior year; and by former NFL star Carl Eller, who used his 2004 induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame to chastise America for turning its back on the Black male.
These athletes rank as the spiritual successors to the radical athletes of the late 1960s and early ’70s, who stood up to the institutional racism and corporate greed of the time — with an unpopular war as backdrop to boot. Along with Ali, their predecessors include U.S. Olympians Tommy Smith and John Carlos, who gave the Black Power salute while standing on the podium at Mexico City in 1968 after Smith received the gold medal and Carlos the bronze in the 200 meter run; Dave Meggyesy, a former NFL star and author of Out Of Their League (Bison Books, 2005), which deals with how big-time sports dehumanizes athletes; and Curt Flood, who won a lawsuit to free fellow baseball players’ careers from team owners’ control. Flood and other Black athletes were the spiritual descendants of Jackie Robinson, who successfully challenged baseball’s color line in 1946.
Zirin’s work has appeared in publications as diverse as the International Socialist Review, The Los Angeles Times, the leading Black newspaper the Pittsburgh Courier, and SLAM, a basketball periodical for younger, hipper fans. “I consider myself a radical journalist,” Zirin told writer Mark Schneider. “I think the best journalism is about taking sides, consciously.”
Book Review by R.V. MURPHY, Contributing Writer
Book: What’s My Name, Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States By Dave Zirin. Haymarket Books, 2005, Paperback, 293 pages, $15
For copy of actual issue, go to https://www.realchangenews.org/2007/01/03/jan-3-2007-entire-issue