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Sports debate between Zirin ("The socializing of debt and the privatizing of profit") and Leitch ("I know I am willfully putting on blinders")

"It makes no sense to be a sports fan," says Will Leitch, founder of the influential sports blog Deadspin and now a contributing editor to New York magazine. "It's kind of dumb that we do it, but we do it, because it's awesome."

Leitch said that at the Brooklyn Book Festival on September 12, and his take on sports--savvy and clever, but willfully divorced from any overarching politics--deserves notice, because it's far more prevalent than that of fellow panelist Dave Zirin, who writes about the politics of sports for The Nation and his syndicated Edge of Sports column.

And Leitch and Zirin got into a forceful but friendly disagreement about that overarching frame.

First, the AY angle

Zirin, whom I've criticized for not writing about Bruce Ratner in his new book about owners, Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love, was ready for a Brooklyn crowd.

After explaining how the land takeover for the Dodgers' stadium in Los Angeles was the template for future owners riding roughshod over communities, he said, "There's a terrific irony that folks in Brooklyn are dealing with the Atlantic Yards project... which I think absolutely every Brooklyn resident should oppose with the fiber of their being."

There were maybe 40 people in the audience--it was early--and only light applause.

Then again, most Brooklynites aren't that excited about the Nets coming to Brooklyn, or so the response to Borough President Marty Markowitz's most recent State of the Borough address suggested.

Zirin criticized Atlantic Yards for, among other things, causing gentrification
, which led moderator Jason Otaño, Markowitz's counsel, to interject that gentrification had come to Brooklyn decades before, with tens of thousands blacks and Puerto Ricans uprooted.

(True enough, though the use of eminent domain wasn't that blatant. The more potent criticism of Atlantic Yards emerges from the developer's capacity to get the inside track on valuable public land

The template

"The problem is that Bruce Ratner is following a template which unfortunately we know the answer to," Zirin continued. "There used to be a time ten years ago when you would debate this question of public stadium funding... and there would be dueling opinions, one side saying they bring a benefit
. This cannot be seen as a debate anymore

(The subsidies for the New York arena and stadium deals are more subtle than in other states, but still substantial.)

Zirin said sports facilities serve "like neoliberal Trojan horses," gaining subsidies even as local leaders neglect infrastructure.

"We're talking about very real choices," he said. "
Ralph Nader says you better turn on politics or politics turns on you
. I feel, as a sports fan, we better turn on sports, or sports are going to turn on us with an absolute vengeance

(Also see Michael D.D. White's take on sports fandom in his Noticing New York blog.)

Willful blinders

Leitch acknowledged that fandom is illogical and said he agreed with most of the "vast majority" of Zirin's take.

But not all.

"There are so few things in the world that are black and white," he said. "If you win you're happy; if you lose you’re sad. Everything else is gray. Sports is the one thing that I have. I know that everything that goes into it is gray, but for three hours, if they win, I'm happy, if they lose I'm sad. That's something I want to protect."

"I know I am willfully putting on blinders," Leitch said. "I'm fully aware of that... but, sorry, life's hard enough, give me sports."

"Because I love sports," Zirin responded, "I don't want to be affected by a lot of the racism, sexism, homophobia, hyper-corporatism... we have an obligation to fight for sports." He suggested that, despite the offensiveness of the team name Washington 
Redskins, "you let it go because it's sports."

He also suggested that the economy of sports has changed drastically. However hated Dodger owner Walter O'Malley was, Zirin noted, he made money from fans buying tickets (and, I'd say, television).

Now, said Zirin, "we're scenery. Now it's public funding of stadiums, personalized seat licenses, sweetheart cable deals, corporate sponsorships."

The public/private balance

An audience member suggested that, in Colorado, where until recently kids didn't have "access to [major league] baseball," maybe the subsidies were worth it.

"It's the socializing of debt and the privatizing of profit," Zirin responded. If teams need public funding, then a team should be partially a public utility, or be partly owned by fans.

"I'm talking crazy," he quipped. "I'm talking Green Bay, Wisconsin," a reference to the Green Bay Packers, the only non-profit, community-owned franchise in American professional sports major leagues.

Leitch and Zirin in New York magazine

In July, Leitch interviewed Zirin for New York magazine.

Leitch's opener:
We've always found that the majority of sports fans try, sometimes to extreme lengths, to keep their personal politics, whatever they are, out of their sports. They imagine sports as a purer thing, unsullied by the ugliness of the real world. This is obviously a fallacy, and most are aware of that fallacy. But can you blame them for wanting to keep their real-world chocolate out of their sports peanut butter? That is to say: Is there a route to being a better, more satisfied sports fan while still knowing how all the sausage is made, and actively protesting its creation?
Zirin's response:
There's nothing I'd like more than a world where sports were served to us à la carte. Kill the extra commercialization. Kill the insane ticket prices. Kill the public funding of stadiums. Kill the inability to watch games unless you have the correct cable package. But until that's the case, we have every right to try and reclaim sports from those who would make it alienating and unenjoyable. Most people love sports but hate what sports have become. We have three choices: We can take it the way it is and just drink more during games, we can stop watching altogether, or we can demand change.
Leitch brought up the Packers:
You talk about the beauty of the Green Bay Packers being publicly owned, and then explain why that can never happen again, in any sport. Is there an owner out there who IS doing it right? Or is at least close?
Zirin's response:
An owner has one job and one job only: to protect the integrity of their sport and to protect the integrity of their teams. They have failed at this task in spectacular fashion. They are supposed to care for our games so we can pass them on to our kids and our kids' kids. Instead, we get insane ticket prices, price-gouging stadium deals, and nine-dollar beer. It's become an abusive relationship, between fan and sport, and every owner is complicit. If forced, I would say that Mark Cuban is great because he promotes his team relentlessly while never pretending to know more than his GM or coaches. At this point, that's the least we can ask.

I'm not sure that's how owners actually see their jobs.

Leitch and Zirin on Deadspin

In August 2007, Leitch interviewed Zirin for Deadspin. His intro:
We've joked about being politically agnostic in these parts before, but that's not actually true. Like any breathing human, we have all kinds of political thoughts; we just don't think they belong on a sports site. Sports are one of the few realms that, if you try hard enough, can be separated from politics. Life and politics are complicated; sports are not. That's one of the reasons we love them.

Dave Zirin does not take this perspective. Zirin, columnist for The Nation and op-ed contributor to the Los Angeles Times, has been a longtime progressive voice in the world of sports, railing against racism, extreme capitalism and all the things the sports world does to screw you.
Leading up to his first question, Leitch tried to explain himself:
We know politics is involved in everything, and that sports is about money, and that when you peek behind the curtain of sports, you'll find all kinds of ugly things. We're fully aware. But isn't there something to be said for ignoring that? Sports are, more than anything else, black and white: If our team wins, we are happy, and if they lose, we are sad. Isn't that a rare, beautiful thing? Nothing else in life is like that. Being a sports fan is an irrational act; we're all rooting for ugly corporations that are out to screw us. If we think about that every time we watch a game ... jeez, that's not very fun, is it?
Zirin's response:
But it's precisely because I love sports that I feel there is a crying need to have some sort of political framework for understanding both the games we watch and the political messages pumped through our play (salute the flag, pay $8 for a beer, support your local enormo-dome/billion dollar welfare hotel).

I think if we as a fans can develop this framework then we could separate what we love about sports from what we hate about sports and demand it to change.

Think about how much space on Deadspin - by utter necessity! - is dedicated not to the "irrational act" of loving sports, or to scores and feats of derring-do, but to the sludge and detritus that clings to sports like so many maggots.

The very success of Deadspin shows how the anger of alienated sports fans is bursting-at-the-seams. So many people I meet fit that description: those who love sports but hate what they have become. Now if we could only take all that steam - all the disgust and anger people feel toward the 21st century athletic industrial complex - and direct it away from the typical easy targets: ("spoiled" athletes, the WNBA, soccer, Mr. Popularity Barry Bonds) and toward those - as you so aptly put it - screwing us over - then we can both fight to reclaim sports and demand a relationship with our games that isn't so numbingly abusive.


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