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How Sports Attacks Public Education March 5, 2010

Posted by rogerhollander in Education, Sports.
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Published on Friday, March 5, 2010 by The Nationby Dave Zirin

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” – Frederick Douglass

On Thursday, I was proud to take part in a student walkout at the University of Maryland in defense of public education. It was just one link in a National Day of Action that saw protests in more than 32 states across the country. I am not a student, and haven’t been since those innocent days when Monica Lewinsky mattered, but I was asked to come speak at a post walkout teach-in about the way sports is used to attack public education. It might sound like a bizarre topic, but it’s the world that students see every day.

At the University of Maryland, as tuition has been hiked and classes cut, football coach Ralph Friedgen makes a base salary of 1.75 million bucks, which would be outrageous even if the team weren’t two-steps past terrible. Friedgen also gets perks like a $50,000 bonus if none of his players are arrested during the course of the season.

Ground zero of the student protest movement is the University of California at Berkeley. Over at Berkeley, students are facing 32% tuition hikes, while the school pays football coach Jeff Tedford 2.8 million dollars a year and is finishing more than 400 million in renovations on the football stadium. This is what students see: boosters and alumni come first, while they’ve been instructed to cheer their teams, pay their loans, and mind their business.

The counterargument is that college athletic departments fund themselves and actually put money back into a school’s general fund. This is simply not true. The October Knight Commission report of college presidents stated that the 25 top football schools had revenues on average of $3.9 million in 2008. The other 94 ran deficits averaging $9.9 million. When athletic departments run deficits, it’s not like the football coach takes a pay cut. In other words, if the team is doing well, the entire school benefits. If the football team suffers, the entire school suffers. This, to put it mildly, is financial lunacy. A school would statistically be better off if it took its endowment to Vegas and just bet it all on black.

If state colleges are hurting, your typical urban public school is in a world of pain with budgets slashed to the bone. Politicians act like these are problems beyond their control like the weather. (“50% chance of sun and a 40% chance of losing music programs.”)

In truth, they are the result of a comprehensive attack on public education that has seen the system starved. One way this has been implemented is through stadium construction, the grand substitute for anything resembling an urban policy in this country. Over the last generation, we’ve seen 30 billion in public funds spent on stadiums. They were presented as photogenic solutions to deindustrialization, declining tax bases, and suburban flight. The results are now in and they don’t look good for the home teams. University of Maryland sports economists Dennis Coates and University of Alberta Brad R. Humphreys studied stadium funding over 30 years and failed to find one solitary example of a sports franchise lifting or even stabilizing a local economy. They concluded the opposite: “a reduction in real per capita income over the entire metropolitan area….Our conclusion, and that of nearly all academic economists studying this issue, is that professional sports generally have little, if any, positive effect on a city’s economy.” These projects achieve so little because the jobs created are low wage, service sector, seasonal employment. Instead of being solutions of urban decay, the stadiums have been tools of organized theft: sporting shock doctrines for our ailing cities.

With crumbling schools, higher tuitions, and an Education Secretary in Arne Duncan who seems more obsessed with providing extra money for schools that break their teachers unions, it’s no wonder that the anger is starting to boil over. It can also bubble up in unpredictable ways. On Wednesday night, after the University of Maryland men’s basketball team beat hated arch-rival Duke, students were arrested after pouring into the streets surrounding the campus. In years past, these sporting riots have been testosterone run amok, frat parties of burning mattresses and excessive inebriation. This year it was different, with police needing to use pepper spray and horses to quell the 1,500 students who filled Route 1. In response, students chanted, “Defense! Defense!” At the Thursday teach in, I said to the students that I didn’t think there was anything particularly political or interesting about a college sports riot. One person shot his hand up and said, “It wasn’t a riot until the cops showed up.” Everyone proceeded to applaud. I was surprised at first that these politically minded students would be defending a post-game melee, but no longer. The anger is real and it isn’t going anywhere. While schools are paying football coaches millions and revamping stadiums, students are choosing between dropping out or living with decades of debt. One thing is certain: it aint a game.

© 2010 The Nation

Dave Zirin is the author of Welcome to the Terrordome: the Pain Politics and Promise of Sports (Haymarket) and the newly published A People’s History of Sports in the United States (The New Press). and his writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Sports Illustrated.com, New York Newsday and The Progressive. He is the host of XM Radio’s Edge of Sports Radio. Contact him at edgeofsports@gmail.com.

Howard Zinn: The Historian Who Made History January 28, 2010

Posted by rogerhollander in History, Revolution.
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Published on Thursday, January 28, 2010 by The Nationby Dave Zirin

Howard Zinn, my hero, teacher, and friend died of a heart attack on Wednesday at the age of 87. With his death, we lose a man who did nothing less than rewrite the narrative of the United States. We lose a historian who also made history.

Anyone who believes that the United States is immune to radical politics never attended a lecture by Howard Zinn. The rooms would be packed to the rafters, as entire families, black, white and brown, would arrive to hear their own history made humorous as well as heroic. “What matters is not who’s sitting in the White House. What matters is who’s sitting in!” he would say with a mischievous grin. After this casual suggestion of civil disobedience, the crowd would burst into laughter and applause.

Only Howard could pull that off because he was entirely authentic. When he spoke against poverty it was from the perspective of someone who had to work in the shipyards during the Great Depression. When he spoke against war, it was from the perspective of someone who flew as a bombardier during World War II, and was forever changed by the experience. When he spoke against racism it was from the perspective of someone who taught at Spelman College during the civil rights movement and was arrested sitting in with his students.

And of course, when he spoke about history, it was from the perspective of having written A People’s History of the United States, a book that has sold more than two million copies and changed the lives of countless people. Count me among them. When I was 17 and picked up a dog-eared copy of Zinn’s book, I thought history was about learning that the Magna Carta was signed in 1215. I couldn’t tell you what the Magna Carta was, but I knew it was signed in 1215. Howard took this history of great men in powdered wigs and turned it on its pompous head.

In Howard’s book, the central actors were the runaway slaves, the labor radicals, the masses and the misfits. It was history writ by Robin Hood, speaking to a desire so many share: to actually make history instead of being history’s victim. His book came alive in December with the debut of The People Speak on the History Channel as actors, musicians, and poets, brought Zinn’s book alive.

Howard was asked once whether his praise of dissent and protest was divisive. He answered beautifully: “Yes, dissent and protest are divisive, but in a good way, because they represent accurately the real divisions in society. Those divisions exist – the rich, the poor – whether there is dissent or not, but when there is no dissent, there is no change. The dissent has the possibility not of ending the division in society, but of changing the reality of the division. Changing the balance of power on behalf of the poor and the oppressed.”

Words like this made Howard my hero. I never thought we would also become friends. But through our mutual cohort, Anthony Arnove, Howard read my sports writing and then gave his blessing to a book project we called A People’s History of Sports in the United States.

We also did a series of meetings together where I would interview Howard on stage. Even at 87, he still had his sharp wit, strong voice, and matinee-idol white hair. But his body had become frail. Despite this physical weakness, Howard would stay and sign hundreds of books until his hand would shake with the effort.

At our event in Madison, Wisconsin, Howard issued a challenge to the audience. He said, “Our job as citizens is to honestly assess what Obama is doing. Not measured just against Bush, because against Bush, everybody looks good. But look honestly at what Obama’s doing and act as engaged and vigorous citizens.”

He also had no fear to express his political convictions loudly and proudly. I asked him about the prospects today for radical politics and he said,

“Let’s talk about socialism. … I think it’s very important to bring back the idea of socialism into the national discussion to where it was at the turn of the [last] century before the Soviet Union gave it a bad name. Socialism had a good name in this country. Socialism had Eugene Debs. It had Clarence Darrow. It had Mother Jones. It had Emma Goldman. It had several million people reading socialist newspapers around the country… Socialism basically said, hey, let’s have a kinder, gentler society. Let’s share things. Let’s have an economic system that produces things not because they’re profitable for some corporation, but produces things that people need. People should not be retreating from the word socialism because you have to go beyond capitalism.”

Howard Zinn taught millions of us a simple lesson: Agitate. Agitate. Agitate. But never lose your sense of humor in the process. It’s a beautiful legacy and however much it hurts to lose him, we should strive to build on Howard’s work and go out and make some history.

© 2010 The Nation

Dave Zirin is the author of Welcome to the Terrordome: the Pain Politics and Promise of Sports (Haymarket) and the newly published A People’s History of Sports in the United States (The New Press). and his writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Sports Illustrated.com, New York Newsday and The Progressive. He is the host of XM Radio’s Edge of Sports Radio. Contact him at edgeofsports@gmail.com.

Zinn’s ‘People’s History’ Masterwork Hits the History Channel December 11, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Democracy, History, Media.
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By Dave Zirin, AlterNet
December 11, 2009

On December 13th, a date I’ve basically had tattooed on my arm like the guy from Memento, The People Speak finally makes its debut on the History Channel. This is more than just must-see-TV. It is nothing less than the life’s work of “people’s historian” Howard Zinn brought to life by some of the most talented actors, musicians, and poets in the country. Howard Zinn and his partner Anthony Arnove chose the most stirring political passages in Zinn’s classic A People’s History of the United States, creating a written anthology called Voices of a People’s History of the United States. Those “voices” have now been fully resurrected by a collection of performers ranging from Matt Damon to hip hop artist Lupe Fiasco to poet Staceyann Chin.

The People Speak also showcases John Legend reading the words of Muhammad Ali, Kerry Washington as Sojourner Truth, David Strathairn’s take on the soaring oratory of Eugene Debs, and Morgan Freeman as Frederick Douglass asking, “What is the 4th of July to the American Slave?” There are also the words of women factory workers read by Marisa Tomei, rebellious farmers personified by Viggo Mortensen, and escaped slaves voiced by Benjamin Bratt.

Certainly the lunatic right will howl to the heavens after seeing “liberal Hollywood” perform the words of labor radicals, anti-racists, feminists, and socialists. In fact, aided by the craven Matt Drudge, they are already in full froth, campaigning online to get the History Channel to drop The People Speak before its air-date. If it weren’t so contemptible, their actions would be almost quaint, like a virtual book burning.

But beneath the bombast, their hostile aversion “a people’s history” speaks volumes about why we need to support this project. This is a country dedicated to historical amnesia. Our radical past holds dangers for both those in power and those threatened by progressive change. We need to rescue the great battles for social justice from becoming either co-opted or simply erased from the history books. Our children don’t learn about the people who made the Civil Rights movement. Instead we get Dr. Martin Luther King on a McDonald’s commemorative cup. Because of our country’s organized ignorance, endless hours are wasted in every generation reinventing the wheel and relearning lessons already taught.

One reason Barack Obama made so many of us feel “hopey” during the 2008 election season is that he seemed to understand and even take inspiration from our “people’s history.” Candidate Obama would invoke the odysseys of abolitionists, suffragettes, freedom riders, and Stonewall rioters. He linked his campaign to this history with a slogan from today’s immigrant rights and union struggles: Si Se Puede, Yes We Can.

And yet this Presidency in practice has been like watching George W. Bush with a working cerebellum. Send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan? Say nothing in the face of racist rallies held outside the capitol? Tell LGBT people to shut up and wait for their civil rights? All in a year’s work. The Obama administration is now counting upon the American people, to once again, quietly go with the flow all while pretending we never saw this movie before. This is why The People Speak matters. It’s aimed at reclaiming our hallowed history from all who would profane it: to resurrect our past as a guide to fight for the future.

There are those who will wrongly see The People Speak as a kind of “spoonful of sugar” approach to education. Get a celebrity to recite the words of Susan B. Anthony and all of a sudden, we’ll all want to be history buffs. But this isn’t Hollywood “slumming” in the land of radical chic. It is instead a bracing spectacle where our sacred history is reimagined by performance artists of tremendous craft. Consider the dramatic task at hand: they are attempting nothing less than turning politics into art. If Zinn and co-producers Arnove, Damon, Josh Brolin and Chris Moore pull this off, it holds the potential to introduce a new generation to Sojourner Truth, Eugene Debs, and perhaps most importantly of all, to the works of Howard Zinn.

As Zinn himself once said, “Knowing history is less about understanding the past than changing the future.” This is the grand adventure of Howard Zinn’s life. I encourage everyone to come along for the ride. Get your friends and family together on Sunday night and experience The People Speak. Then take them by the hand and pledge to be heard.
Dave Zirin is the author of “What’s My Name Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States.” Read more of his work at Edgeofsports.com.

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