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The Kaepernick Whisperer

He has the ear of Colin Kaepernick, Michael Bennett, and Gregg Popovich. Why do the lefty icons of professional sports turn to Dave Zirin when they want to speak out?

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Dave Zirin said he was nervous, but that might have been because he was seeing a life’s dream materialize before his eyes. We were at the annual Nation Institute gala, where Colin Kaepernick was set to receive a citizenship award. Zirin, glancing at pages of crumpled notes, was about to tell a few hundred lefties how athletes like Kaepernick had become leaders of the Resistance.

“My whole introduction is about Palestine,” he joked.

Anybody who has read Zirin’s Nation column knows that Kaepernick is his kind of hero: the athlete-apostate who triumphs over scheming owners, shoe companies, and Clay Travis to speak truth to power. But until recently, those heroes—at least, the ones with bold-faced names—existed mostly in the past. As Anthony Arnove, who edited several of Zirin’s books, told me, “Unless you have that deep sense of history, it’s easy to feel like, Oh, everyone’s Michael Jordan. Everyone’s just sheep. But they’re not.” Zirin is too modest to say this, but we are seeing a revolution that he believed was coming.

After name-checking Muhammad Ali and Jackie Robinson, Zirin told the crowd, “We will never be able to speak about this moment of millennial resistance to racism without speaking about Colin Kaepernick.”

“As Shakespeare wrote, ‘Tell the truth and you shame the devil,’” he continued. “But guess what. The devil doesn’t take very kindly to truth, and the devil doesn’t take very kindly to shame.”

Enter Kaepernick’s enemies. “What did they do?” Zirin asked. “They showered him with abuse. They sent death threats to his place of work. … NFL owners who gave this racist orange Muppet in the White House millions of dollars … it is so obvious now their motivation was to turn Colin Kaepernick into a ghost story.”

“But there’s a line in the Bible that says, ‘They that sow the wind shall reap the whirlwind.’ So instead of a ghost story to frighten a new generation of activist athletes, he”—Kaepernick—“has become an icon of athletic resistance.”

You can cheer on Kaepernick and still find that statement amazing. The sports-resistance beat, once pursued by a socialist like Zirin, is now so mainstream that an athlete roasting Trump is almost clickbait. After Kaepernick gave the speech Zirin introduced him for, he was going to a Sports Illustrated ceremony, where Beyoncé would toast him.

In the springtime of athletic resistance, Zirin is more than just a columnist. He is a kind of insider: the Adam Schefter of lefty dissent. Last May, Zirin scored an interview with Kaepernick that every TV booker and magazine writer in America was chasing. In October, when Gregg Popovich wanted to put Donald Trump on blast, he called Zirin. This spring, Zirin will publish a book he cowrote with the Seattle Seahawks’ Michael Bennett called Things That Make White People Uncomfortable.

“We live in that world where the sports field is a site of tenacious resistance,” Zirin told the crowd. “And that’s a sentence, Lord knows, I never thought I would say.” A few minutes later, as Zirin and Kaepernick were bear-hugging onstage, I thought, How did this happen?

There was a less-woke time—let’s call it 2005—when Dave Zirin didn’t make nearly this much sense. It wasn’t that he was wrong about the possibilities of athlete activism. It was that there was something almost comic about searching for Ali’s heir and finding … Adonal Foyle talking about campaign finance reform.

Even if you nodded at Zirin’s ideas, his prose could feel relentlessly moral. He was always dragging you back to the racial-sexual-financial implications of sports, demanding that you pay attention. There were times when I thought, OK, Dave, I get it. Brent Musburger once called John Carlos and Tommie Smith “black-skinned stormtroopers.”

And yet we now live in a time where the president of the United States calls a kneeling football player a “son of a bitch,” and that player becomes a prop in campaign ads from Virginia to Alabama. Some of the most famous American gymnasts have joined the #metoo movement. Saying “Zirin was right” is too simplistic. But he was right about a big thing: The racial-sexual-financial implications of sports were the story.

Before the gala, Zirin and I were talking in a setting that was more in tune with his beat: a diner. I asked if he realized right away that the Kaepernick story would be this big. “I knew it would be big for me,” he said. “Like, I’m going to follow this to the ends of the earth.”

Zirin and Kaepernick aren’t bosom buddies; they check in occasionally by text message or DM. But last May, Zirin got invited to watch Kaepernick conduct a Know Your Rights youth seminar in Chicago—access any sportswriter on the planet would kill for.

The piece Zirin produced crackled with scenes of ’60s-style activism. The camp was partly modeled on schools designed by civil rights activists and the Black Panthers, and the kids who attended were bombarded with messages: “Chicago is the most segregated city in the United States.” “Chicago is the false-confession capital of the world.”

Kaepernick—acting like the “world’s chillest public-school administrator,” Zirin wrote—took the stage. “So if an officer stops you, what do you say?” he asked the kids.

“Am I free to go?” the kids replied.

You didn’t find any skepticism of Kaepernick’s methods. But the piece showed off Zirin’s strengths. He wasn’t content to just show Kaepernick as an activist but wanted to understand what sort of activist he is. “It really made me think of the Shakespeare phrase, ‘Some are born great, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em,’” Zirin told me. “If you ever talk to Colin Kaepernick, you would never think of him as being the person who was at the front of a march speaking. … He’d be the sort of person at an activist conference who’d be really happy to make sure that everybody signed in.”

SPORTS ILLUSTRATED 2017 Sportsperson of the Year Show
Colin Kaepernick receives the Sports Illustrated Muhammad Ali Legacy Award in December.
Photo by Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images for Sports Illustrated

Zirin also understood that Kaepernick stepping to the fore, however modestly, marked a shift in lefty ideology. Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter made a show of not having leaders. “At the same time, people also need resistance icons,” Zirin said. “You can’t just have these leaderless movements. You have to have people who people are invested in and are willing to defend.”

When Zirin wasn’t writing about Kaepernick, he was defending him on the stump. In August, Zirin and 1,000 other protesters gathered for a rally outside NFL headquarters on Park Avenue. Susan Sarandon was there, but the organizers didn’t ask her to speak. They asked Zirin. Jabbing his finger in the air, Zirin quoted the late comedian Dick Gregory: “What kind of country cheers black bodies on the field but does not respect black lives at home?”

In January, Zirin interviewed Bennett, who had begun to speak out about politics, onstage in Seattle. “We vibed in a terrific way,” Zirin said. After the interview, Bennett flew Zirin to his offseason home in Hawaii to work on a book that’s a mix of autobiography and politics. When asked why he picked Zirin, Bennett said, “He’s the voice of the people right now.”

There are a couple of reasons Zirin became that voice. His long tenure on the resistance beat—“15 fuckin’ years,” he told me—gives him a kind of gravitas. “Obviously, he’s white,” Bennett said. “But at the same time, he understands the struggle.”

There are plenty of sportswriters who cover similar issues: Howard Bryant, several Deadspin writers, etc. Most would insist on a conventional journalist-subject relationship. Zirin sees himself as more of a hybrid journalist-activist in the mold of Naomi Klein.

Perhaps most importantly, Zirin has no interest in covering athlete-activists like a slumming academic. He wants to cover them like a true believer. “If he wrote like Noam Chomsky, you could forget about him as a socialist sportswriter,” said his friend and mentor Robert Lipsyte. “But he doesn’t. He’s a purple-prose, bad-metaphor kind of writer. This is all stuff I’ve said to him, and no longer say to him, because he’s incorrigible. He’s great.”

Zirin learned to talk with a bullhorn before he learned to write a column. In his 20s, he was a full-time teacher and part-time protester in Washington, D.C. His wife, Michele, encouraged him to take his first job in journalism at a Maryland newspaper that paid him $250 a week—provided Zirin also sold ads. It was at a second, black-owned paper, the Prince George’s Post, where the editors encouraged him to write about sports and race. He called his column “The Edge of Sports.”

Ten years ago, the sports protest beat sounded a lot more fun in theory than in practice. If the people need resistance icons, so do the columnists who cover them. Zirin was left to write about Etan Thomas’s opposition to the Iraq War and why Adam Morrison was a Naderite.

Recently, a writer wondered if we’d reached #PeakDaveZirin when Zirin used a quote from Rosa Luxemburg, the socialist philosopher, to explain the rift between opposing camps of NFL protesters. I believe peak Zirin was reached a decade earlier—when Zirin interviewed Mumia Abu-Jamal, the convicted murderer and locus of lefty protest, and asked him about sports.

The lack of big-time subjects led Zirin to look back to the lions of the ’60s. In 2003, he interviewed John Carlos, who raised a fist at the 1968 Olympics. It resulted in a long friendship and, later, a book. “I told him 15 years ago, ‘If you think John Carlos was bad, wait for the next generation,’” Carlos told me.

It was the ’60s crew that brought Zirin to a wider audience. His Prince George’s Post columns, which he sent around on a listserv, got noticed by Dave Meggyesy, the former NFL linebacker and anti-war activist. Meggyesy recommended them to Lipsyte, who mentioned Zirin to the editors of The Nation. It wasn’t immediately clear how a sports column would look when sandwiched between the bylines of Eric Alterman and Katha Pollitt. But Katrina vanden Heuvel, the magazine’s editor and publisher, told me that Zirin is now a star on the Nation’s annual cruises.

I asked Zirin if in his formative years he felt estranged from mainstream sportswriting. “I always felt like, Hey, I’m a sportswriter,” he said. “I’m just doing it differently than other folks.”

If his approach didn’t estrange Zirin, his politics did. “I would definitely describe myself as a socialist—a socialist sportswriter,” Zirin said.

“It’s this idea of seeing the world framed by a long-term fight for social justice,” he explained. “And seeing how sports and culture fit in that picture, as much street demonstrations or strikes or left-wing political candidates. Trying to see all these things as connected. That’s how the socialism informs the sportswriting.

“Any socialist worth their salt is going to be against sexism, racism, and homophobia. … Any socialist worth their salt is going to be against corporate welfare. ... When these issues come up, I do feel confident on the ‘which side are you on?’ question.”

Writing as a socialist means writing frantically. In 2018, when Zirin brings out Bennett’s book and a new biography of Jim Brown, he will have published 10 books in 14 years. “That’s part of this niche,” he said. “You got to be hustling constantly because nobody’s trying to give me a six-figure contract to do this.” He said his income consists of a medium-sized salary from The Nation, book advances, college speaking fees, and a podcast from which he says he makes “hundreds of dollars.”

“I think what he needs is some sort of quasi-mainstream show,” said Lipsyte. “On television, not radio. He’s fine on radio and on his podcast. But that big, rubbery, somehow-endearing face really comes across on the screen.”

For years, it seemed like Zirin’s biggest job was explaining the importance of sports to the left. The cheers at the Nation Institute party showed the kind of status he achieved in that world. A few years ago, I was at a Zirin book party where you could find Lipsyte and Jeremy Schaap standing in one corner and Ang Lee in the other.

Despite his Hammer-of-Thor prose, in person Zirin is a mostly an aw-shucks kind of guy. Unlike a lot of sportswriters, he isn’t territorial and seems genuinely happy when someone else joins the cause. One day years ago, I opened my mailbox and found that Zirin had mailed me a book that the Marxist writer Mike Marqusee wrote about Muhammad Ali. When I thanked him, he told me he thought I’d dig it. It made me happy to think that we were, for a time, at the barricades together.

In another decade, Zirin might have had a career like Lester Rodney, the communist who thundered against segregation in baseball but whose politics kept him at the margins of the profession. But then the world changed. “I’m going to get this quote wrong,” Zirin said, sacking Bartlett’s again. “But does Muhammad go to the mountain or does the mountain come to Muhammad?”

Zirin’s biggest problem was always finding athletes who were both big enough to command attention and willing to speak out. When LeBron James said in 2008 that he wanted to be a “global icon” like Ali, Zirin was skeptical. Wasn’t it sacrifice, not fame, that made Ali an icon?

Four years later, James and his Miami Heat teammates were wearing hoodies to protest the killing of Trayvon Martin. Zirin realized his ideas were outdated. “What LeBron has done is he’s created this new template of mogul-activist,” Zirin said. “A person who will call the president a ‘bum’ and still be recognized as this pop cultural leviathan. He’s been able to somehow do both.” Throw in Bennett, Steph Curry, Breanna Stewart, Steve Kerr, and Gregg Popovich, and all of a sudden Zirin had a gallery of heroes.

Just as importantly, the world also gave Zirin villains. Watching the Houston Texans take a knee after Bob McNair called NFL players “inmates” convinced Zirin that he was just seeing something bigger than a reboot of organized protest. He was seeing a reboot of organized labor. “They are workers with a collective sense of their power,” he wrote in a column.

Looming over everything, of course, is Trump. As Zirin and I scarfed down pizza at Penn Station while waiting for his train back to Washington, D.C., I asked if Trump’s sports talk had surprised him.

“Not at all,” Zirin said. “Before his speech in Alabama, I was surprised he wasn’t doing it more.”

In targeting black athletes (and ignoring Kerr and Popovich), Zirin thinks Trump is doing more than feeding off the, um, economic anxiety of the crowd. He’s tapping into their athletic anxiety. “Their own fantasies about being a pro athlete…” he said. “If you tap into the envy, you can unleash something very dangerous and very brutal.”

Though he has been the house lefty on Outside the Lines for years, Zirin said the producers now call less often because there are so many other writers (Jessica Luther, Lindsay Gibbs, and Patrick Hruby, to name just a few) working the same beat. The sports-radio debates he once had about stadium funding have dried up. Producers have trouble finding someone to argue the “pro” side.

Golden State Warriors v San Antonio Spurs Photo by Darren Carroll/NBAE via Getty Images

Nothing shows how the world has come to Zirin more than his relationship with Gregg Popovich. Zirin met Popovich when he was still focused on ’60s rebels and Pop happened to walk into a talk Zirin was giving with John Carlos. “We’re there talking, and then Cornel West comes in,” Zirin said. “I give Popovich a little elbow and say, ‘That’s Cornel West.’ Popovich looks at me and says, ‘I know who Cornel West is.’” It was the same scoff Popovich uses with sideline reporters.

But they kept in touch. After Trump was elected, Popovich flew Zirin to San Antonio so he could moderate a discussion that Popovich and West were having in front of a group of high school students about racism and resistance. (The absence of cameras, Zirin said, deprived the world of seeing Popovich and West sing a duet of “Soul Man.”) As Zirin once did with me, he took to mailing Popovich the odd book—like playwright Wallace Shawn’s new essay collection. “I thought Pop would dig it,” he said.

In October, Zirin’s phone rang. It was Pop. Trump had claimed, falsely, that Barack Obama didn’t call the families of American soldiers killed in action. Zirin thought Popovich just wanted to vent privately. But Popovich said: “Please make sure this is on the record.” He called Trump a “soulless coward” and added: “We have a pathological liar in the White House, unfit intellectually, emotionally, and psychologically to hold this office, and the whole world knows it, especially those around him every day.” At the end of his soliloquy, Pop said, “Bye, Dave.” With the phone still resting in his hand, Zirin said, “Bye, Pop.”

There are scenes from the springtime of athletic resistance that are so extraordinary that you have to repeat them until they sink in. So dig this: A five-time NBA champion coach called a socialist sportswriter to tell him, on the record, that the president of the United States is a coward. Give credit to Dave Zirin: That didn’t happen in the ’60s.

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