Jim Cullen: Review of Dave Zirin's "Bad Sports: How Owners Are Runing the Sports We Love" (The New Press, 2012)





Jim Cullen, who teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York, is a book review editor at HNN. He is completing a study of Hollywood actors as historians slated for publication by Oxford University Press later this year. Cullen blogs at American History Now.

Complaints about the state of spectator sports has become a virtual subgenre of journalism. Negligence and harassment by organizations like the NCAA; self-indulgent (and sometimes felonious) athletes; boorish behavior by fans: one can barely get through a broadcast, sports section, or website without encountering jeremiads in some form. In Bad Sports, journalist and radio host Dave Zirin points his finger at the owners of ball clubs in a variety of sports. First and foremost, he asserts, it's their excessive behavior that has been corroding love of the game.

Zirin's chief complaint is the way these avowed corporate enterprises get subsidies from taxpayers in building facilities and running teams, with little if any sense of public obligation or reciprocation. He argues that these arrangements never pay municipalities back, in that the jobs they create are menial, fleeting, and that new stadiums rarely attract enough visitors to amortize public investment. What makes matters worse, he says, are the way many owners then use their athletic platform as a means to promote religious, political, and other agendas.

The core Bad Sports, which was first published in 2010 and has been reissued in a new edition by the New Press, consists of a series of portraits of corporate malefactors: George Steinbrenner's New York Yankees; Clay Bennett's Seattle Supersonics/Oklahoma City Thunder; Dan Snyder's Washington Redskins, et. al. These profiles in avarice use local journalism and other sources to credibly document many varieties of sordid behavior. Zirin reports that he sought interviews with all his subjects, but was almost always turned down.

While it's not hard to see why -- these people have good reasons for wanting to avoid close attention --  Zirin undermines his case somewhat in his tone. An aggrieved populism dominates. "We are owed plenty by the athletic industrial complex," he asserts in the introduction. "We are owed loyalty. We are owed a return on our massive civic investment. And more than anything, we should raise our fists to the owner's box and say we are owed a little bit of goddamn respect." But the best way to demonstrate one's feelings about an $8 beer is by simply refusing to buy one. Or a ticket, for that matter. And while it's ultimately impossible to feel much sympathy for these people even when Zirin is piling it on, one has to wonder why greedy athletes, corrupt government officials, or craven fans get a pass from his fury. He's a left-wing Rush Limbaugh, preaching to the converted.

Zirin does point to an intriguing alternative, however: he wants more teams to be publicly owned, like the Green Bay Packers. He mentions the the Green Bay model throughout the book, and comes back to it in his conclusion. But one wishes he spent more time in talking about how -- or whether -- it could be generalized. Would the Packers model work in larger and more economically stratified cities? What would the implications be for drafting and signing players? What kind of legal and political challenges could be mounted to the National Football League monopoly? Perhaps there's another book there.

In the meantime, Bad Sports functions as a lean, mean indictment. Just make sure you have plenty of antacid tablets on hand.


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