Dave Zirin discusses how race, politics, culture impact sports

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Award-winning sportswriter Dave Zirin spoke about the intersection of sports, politics, race and culture on October 19, 2017, at Zoellner Hall. Zirin was brought to Lehigh by the MLK committee. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Author and sportswriter Dave Zirin visited Lehigh to discuss his experience in sports writing and how social factors like race, politics and culture impact sports.

The talk, titled “Race X: An Examination of Issues, Events, and Culture Through The Lens of Race,” took place Thursday night in Zoellner Arts Center.

Lehigh’s MLK committee plans these talks every two years, each year focusing on a different issue or theme. This year, the committee chose “Race X” because it focused on modern-day issues surrounding race and politics, such as the debate over NFL players kneeling during the national anthem.

“The MLK Committee saw (Zirin) as someone who has long been interested in the intersection of race, culture and politics,” university communications director Linda Jean Harbrecht said. “His talk is also very timely, given the current controversy surrounding the NFL and a player’s right to protest. He’s written on this and related topics extensively.”

Zirin began his talk by explaining his experience growing up in a house with “die-hard” sports fans. He played nearly every sport and had a passion for sports throughout his life. It wasn’t until college that he thought about the politics and social constructs behind sports.

“There was a mammoth gap between what I thought about sports history and what actually was sports history,” Zirin said.

Zirin used examples of figureheads of the civil rights movement to demonstrate how there has always been a connection between sports and politics. He spoke about athletes like Jackie Robinson who, in addition to becoming the first African-American to play in Major League Baseball, was an important figure in the civil rights movement alongside Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and others. 

He then discussed professional boxer Muhammad Ali, who Zirin said was unlike any other athlete of his time because he was one of the most celebrated and despised activists of the 20th century.

“Just the mere fact that Muhammad Ali was this 18-year-old who was utterly unapologetic about speaking out . . . was too much for the incredibly right wing, almost entirely white, mainstream boxing press at that time,” Zirin said.

Zirin tied some of Ali’s traits to Colin Kaepernick, whom Zirin has met and interviewed. He said, like Ali, Kaepernick is unapologetic and stands for what he believes in, regardless of the consequences and hate he receives.

Zirin said past and present examples like these are what ties together sports and a topic like “Race X.” He said people often think sports is just playing a game, when in reality it ties into most issues of race and beliefs.

Zirin finished his talk with a Q&A session. Attendees asked questions on sports history, figures in the civil rights movement and Donald Trump.

“What I found most interesting was how passionate he was about these topics and how he’s calling for this change,” Sebastian Galdamez, ’21, said. “He’s one of those protesters himself, and that’s really cool because he made me learn more about the stuff that’s been going on, not only with Colin Kaepernick but also issues that have happened similar to Kaepernick that I never even knew about.”

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1 Comment

  1. Comparing Jackie Robinson to Colin Kaepernick is an insult to Robinson. Robinson was a classy kid who humbly broke the color barrier while Kaepernick is simply an overpaid has been trying to get attention for himself. Ali on the other hand was a fun loving arrogant fighter that promoted himself very well &had the talent & skills to back up his arrogance.

    Kaepernick & his fellow overpaid athletes that show no respect for the very country that gave them the opportunity they have are a discredit to the NFL & their employers who should simply replace them with taxi squad members looking for that same opportunity.

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