News Brief: Trump, the NFL, and the Upcoming Mother of All ‘Culture Wars’

Citations Needed | May 27, 2020 | Transcript

Donald Trump displays a custom New England Patriots jersey during the team’s visit to the White House in 2017. (Samuel Corum / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images)


Nima Shirazi: Welcome to a Citations Needed News Brief. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: You can follow Citations Needed on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed and become a supporter of our work through with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. We do these News Briefs in between our full length episodes when we are just so compelled by what is going on in the news that we cannot help ourselves and we need to talk to each other about things and not only talk to each other, Adam and I love to talk to each other about bullshit that we see in the news, but this time around on today’s News Brief, we are going to be joined by none other than friend of the show Dave Zirin, sports editor at The Nation magazine, host of the Edge of Sports podcast and author of quite a number of books including What’s My Name, Fool?, Welcome to the Terrordome, Brazil’s Dance with the Devil and most recently, Jim Brown: Last Man Standing.

Adam: So Dave had a provocative article in The Nation headlined, “The NFL Is Now Part of Trump’s Reelection Project. The league will reopen, health and safety be damned, and Trump wouldn’t have it any other way,” where he makes the case that the mother of all culture wars, the sort of perfect storm of culture war, is on the horizon with regard to quote-unquote “reopening the economy” with regard to the NFL, reopening the NFL, bringing the NFL back. This episode’s going to be based on some speculation, which we have some indicators that this is where it’s headed, I think pretty strong indicators from NFL owners, NBC and Fox News and ESPN personalities, indications from the White House, Trump himself. One disclaimer is that this is somewhat speculative, but I do think we need to get ahead of this because I do think that all indications are pointing to this being a major culture war coming in late summer, I think probably July, August, this is going to really become a major issue.

Nima: But the groundwork is being laid now in terms of what we’re going to see for the fall, which incidentally is not only football, but also kind of a major election.

Adam: Yeah and one does, of course, not need to like football or even sports at all to understand that in the United States, football is a very big deal, NFL specifically is the most profitable, biggest sport, and that because it falls in the fall as it were, Trump is going to view this as being a referendum on his ability to handle the coronavirus pandemic and because we all know more than anything else Trump is about spectacle. And there’s I think no bigger indication of a sense of returning to normal than sports coming back, specifically the NFL, because the NFL has months to sort of plan for this right?

Nima: All the biggest flags can be commissioned, all the flyovers scheduled to signal that USA, USA, USA has beaten COVID-19, and who do we have to thank for that? Not only Bob Kraft and Roger Goodell, but Donald Trump.

Adam: Yeah, and I think that when it comes to the intersection of PR, power and bullshit, I think this is going to be a motherlode. Now, then the question arises: what is to be done about it? And that’s something we’ll talk about in this interview but I want to sort of lay the groundwork that even if you don’t care about the NFL, or care about sports, which I assume is a meaningful percentage of our listeners, listen to it anyway because I do think that this is going to be an item, a major ticket item, regardless of whether or not one cares about the NFL, because I do think it becomes a cultural flashpoint and if there’s one thing that Trump is good at doing it’s finding those cultural flashpoints and making it bubble to the surface and becoming a partisan issue and, you know, reopening should never have been a partisan issue to begin with but of course, now it is, quote-unquote “reopening,” of course it’s not really reopening, it’s a fake reopening, and now I think that whether or not we have professional football is going to be the next one, and I think it’s a useful starting point to talk about how we talk about this, the politics for the next year of quote-unquote “reopening” and what that looks like.

Nima: So without further ado, we are now going to talk to Dave Zirin, sports editor at The Nation magazine. Stay with us.


Nima: We are joined now by Dave Zirin, sports editor at The Nation magazine. Dave, thank you so much for coming on the show today. It is great to have you back on Citations Needed.

Dave Zirin: I am so glad to be here and I’m ready to match your energies.

Nima: Do it.

Adam: I got my energy now. So you wrote an article recently entitled, “The NFL is Now Part of Trump’s Reelection Project,” which is a great example of one of those screenwriting conceits called Inevitable But Unexpected, where, sort of didn’t see it coming but now that you say now that I see it, I’m like, ‘Oh, yeah, of course,’ we’ve had this take from the beginning, right? There was no way this was going to happen another way and your general thesis is that the Trump administration and his allies, which is, I think, fair to say the vast majority of NFL owners and the NFL itself, will effectively use the NFL season as a cultural war, and I think it’ll be the culture war to end all culture wars and sometimes people use culture war as a kind of like, shorthand for something that’s not significant, but I actually think it’s quite significant and I want you to sort of start by telling us what your indications were that this will come to a head later this late summer and fall and how do you think this may play out and what are some of the things people should be looking out for in the coming weeks?

Dave Zirin

Dave Zirin: Yeah, I mean, there’s a lot that folks should be looking out for. I mean, first and foremost will baseball reopen in July? And if baseball reopens with an 82 game season, with all sorts of bizarre things like no spitting, is one of the things that they’re laying out for players, no high fives, no fist bumps, no food in the locker room, no using the showers, no sitting in the dugout, they’ll have people sitting in the empty stands, be sequestered from their families, have their temperature taken before they leave the hotel, all sorts of things and baseball is hardly a grounds for the culture war, I mean, it couldn’t be less like the NFL in that regard, but if baseball gets off the ground, it does provide the pretext for the NFL to say, ‘Hey, baseball’s doing it, we’re going to do it too,’ and believe me, the NFL is going to say that even if baseball doesn’t do it, they’re going to say ‘Hey, baseball didn’t do it but we can.’ No matter what happens with baseball, the NFL is going to try to get started in September. No matter the risk to the players, no matter the risk to their health, because as I argue they have a political interest in doing so, it’s not just a financial interest. But that’s one of the things for people to look out for is what happens with baseball as a signpost to whether or not sports are going to be willing to basically sacrifice their own labor for the purposes of reopening, like so many other industries have done. What makes sports a little different is that they’ve also invested millions of dollars in this labor, as opposed to say, a Perdue chicken plant so they’re the product of their own labor. So they have to be careful not to destroy that at the same time, but they’re so eager for particularly the broadcast money, that it’s not going to stop them. The other thing to look for is this idiotic committee that Trump has put together about the Committee to Reopen Sports, which is all white dudes, no health professionals, no union folks, and it includes on it Jerry Jones, owner the Cowboys, million dollar Trump supporter, Bob Kraft, owner of the Patriots, million dollar Trump supporter, and I think somebody else as well, but it’s the big check writers from the NFL to the Trump campaign are on this reopening committee. And it’s a culture war question and red meat for Trump’s base like whether or not the NFL reopens but there’s another slant for it as well in that if the NFL doesn’t reopen, there are people in the Trump campaign who think that that’s going to be such a shocking break from normalcy that it’ll actually hurt his reelection campaign, it’ll make it more likely for sleepy Joe or whoever to sashay into the White House. So there’s pressure from Trump on NFL owners to restart but there’s also pressure from Trump for the NFL owners to have the fight and have the fight with people like Gavin Newsom, for example, who’s already now backtracking on the whole not-reopening-sports thing in California. So there’s a lot of variables going on here.

Adam: To be clear, just for those listening who aren’t fully up to speed, that without widespread testing and contact tracing, and obviously no vaccine, which we won’t have at the earliest until spring of next year, the equation hasn’t changed at all and this is the thing people don’t really understand is that, and you talk to people, I don’t want to be the left-wing journalist who does the whole red state whisperer thing because I’m from Texas, but if you talk to people in Texas or get a sense of what’s going on there, follow them on Facebook, whatever, there’s this belief that it’s over now, it’s sort of over and that’s the way that Republicans have framed this now and, and their astroturf protest is that ‘We’re just going to sort of act like it’s not there,’ sort of see no evil, but the basics haven’t changed at all, all that’s changed is people are bored and the sort of initial shutdown has now lent itself and Nima, you can talk about this too, has lent itself to a kind of mechanism to sort of trigger the libs, that we’re just going to do this because the eggheads and the liberals think that we should all be shut down.

Nima: Well, yeah, you know, something that I’m really struck by is that this pandemic didn’t seem like a reality here in the U.S. until the NBA stopped, and then March Madness was canceled, and that’s what signaled something different than like, ‘Oh, I guess I need to not touch my face and wash my hands really well when I get off the subway’ to ‘I’m not going to work any more at a different place than my home’ or hearing from people ‘My office is shutting down’ or ‘We are doing something different,’ schools are closing, but the real first thing that happened was sports, sports made a decision, right? Certain leagues made decisions and that’s what made this a reality, which then when you look at the other side, Dave as you’re talking about, what will make it over? Right? What will signal that this is done, and it is getting back to, as you said, normalcy and what was the most normal thing that we lost? Sports.

Dave Zirin: Sports. It’s interesting that you mentioned the NBA because the NBA is almost like a funhouse mirror of what we’re talking about with the NFL in that from people I speak to NBA players are absolutely itching to get back to work. They’re, I guess, not having a great time with their families in quarantine, but they are anxious to actually have a real season in 2020. I mean, it was seen as positively shocking earlier this week when former coach George Karl said, ‘Hey, let’s just call the season, let’s be done with this,’ and people, you know, acted like he farted in church or something. It was Ka-Pow! But Adam Silver, from what I hear, takes the whole idea of them reopening very seriously, precisely because of what you mentioned, because the NBA one day in March had a rule that said, no more high fives we’re only going to do fist bumps and that’s our concession to COVID, in 24 hours they were like, ‘Yeah, we’re done. We’re done. This ain’t about fist bumps anymore.’

Nima: (Laughs.) Yeah.

Adam: Because that’s the fear here, right? I mean, there are two parallel tracks in this country that have always been there, and I don’t want to sound like Ezra Klein talking about polarization because I think that one track is based in science on one track is based on nihilism and capitalism and death cult, I don’t want to equate the two, but you have two tracks where one is just acting like this isn’t going on and this is going to come to a head here and then like you said, it’s not just going to be about whether or not the NFL opens up, it’s going to be the battle, the political battle, right? And the people who don’t understand why does Trump spend three months out of the year going after Colin Kaepernick on Twitter? It’s because he understands his base. He understands how to race bait and be racist and he understands that opening the NFL, in this country, we like baseball, we love basketball, football is a religion, it is more important than anything else in this country and this is why I’m scared It’s going to be basically two months of if you don’t support the NFL reopening, you’re doing it as an anti-Trump conspiracy, you’re doing as you hate America versus the other side. So I guess I’m curious that fast forward to August or September, what to you does this look like? Is it just Trump tweets and Fox News or what’s the sort of character of this, and more importantly, where does a player’s union come into this?

Dave Zirin: You just said the key question because it’s going to be the union and the players who are going to have to be that voice of credible resistance because it’s not just going to be Trump tweets, I mean, you’re already having, Jerry Jones tweeted today from the facilities in Dallas, it was like, ‘Great to get back to work.’ No coincidence that he is who he is culturally and politically, that he’s sending out that tweet and so you’re going to see the entire reopening of facilities, you’re going to see them try to operate in some of the ways that you’re seeing baseball proposing that they operate and you’re going to see what’s much more tragic than baseball or basketball is that because, you know, the average NFL career is only three years, with actually most of the people on the end of rosters only lasting one year, you’re going to see a lot of players feel like, they can’t do what some baseball players are saying they’re going to do which is say ‘Screw this, I’m just going to stay home. I’m on contract maybe I won’t get paid this year, I’ll get paid next year, I’ll be fine. My health is more important.’ NFL players don’t have that option in the same way because their contracts aren’t guaranteed so they’re in a very perilous situation. I’ve tried to talk to the union. I’ve got some good contacts there. They have not gotten back to me other than like some boilerplate comments about, well, you know, ‘The health of our players is the number one concern for us’ but what’s so scary about the NFL is they don’t really give a shit about their players at all. I mean, anybody who knows the history of how they’ve handled concussions knows that to be true, and other assorted injuries and how they’ve tried to cover them up and mask them and take advantage of the precarious nature that the players have. So that’s what makes it particularly scary is that Roger Goodell is going to go full blast with this and it’s going to be up to the union to actually say no, because people like, I don’t know, like myself for you guys saying no, this is crazy, isn’t going to make much of a dent for the reasons that you said Adam, because it is like a religion in this country and what’s scary about it too is that it does also carve into scenarios that aren’t just red state/blue state, Right versus Left and there’s a lot of people who want to do this quarantine the right way who are also diehard fans, they’re in my family, frankly, and they’re ready to throw it all to the wind if it means NFL games.

Adam: Right. What do you suspect would be some of the leverage do you think that NFL owners, if it does come to pass, come to some sort of conflict, would we be seeing things like fines or kind of a lockout situation? Or obviously, I don’t think they would do scabs, I think we’re kind of beyond that, but do you think it would ever escalate to anything like that?

Nima: You just get Vince McMahon to flesh out all the teams.

Dave Zirin: Yeah, given the horrific failure of the XFL I don’t think scabs are an option, either. That’s a very interesting question. I mean, I think the players are going to want to get back on the field because of the precarious nature of their jobs and they’re going to pressure the union to toe their line. That’s my fear and my concern and what I think is the most likely outcome, and Joe Buck, the dunderheaded announcer for Fox, you know, he got in a lot of trouble apparently by sort of tipping off that they will do piped in crowd noises, they’ll do computer simulated crowds, they’ll do whatever it takes to not make it seem like it’s being played in a post-apocalyptic atmosphere.

Adam: Yeah, because obviously the compromises is doing this pared-down thing without crowds and meanwhile I’m getting emails from the Chicago Bears saying, you know, ‘Get your season tickets’ and I’m like, yeah, good luck with that. It just seems like even the pared-down version sort of misses the point and puts players and I think more importantly, the sort of staff and the thousands of people that are required to run a football game at risk and the people that they go home to et cetera, et cetera.

Dave Zirin: That’s what people don’t talk about is that the game isn’t just the players on the field, is that it requires hundreds of people to pull these things off, and the lack of care for them in this equation is also very upsetting.

Nima: So being a media-focused podcast, I must ask about, not only, as we’ve been discussing, the players and the owners and the fans, but part of your piece I’d love you to kind of talk to is how ESPN and other sports media are figuring into this and, you know, what pressure are they putting on the league or what messages are they sending out? Because, you know, yes, so much that this has to do with money but as you also said, there’s only so much you can do when your entire job is talking about a league, a season, games, stats, you just can’t do that. So what are you seeing already from ESPN and what do you think we’ll see in the future?

Dave Zirin: Well, already the pressure on ESPN is profound before we even talk about any pressure that they’re exercising. They’re under a great deal of pressure because they’ve paid billions of dollars for the rights to broadcast these NFL games. And you know, the sponsors will leave, I mean, ESPN is insured against the basic losses of the billions, the NFL is not insured, they will lose billions of dollars if they don’t put games out there. That’s their pressure. ESPN’s pressure is less about that money than it is about the sponsors that they lose and then the thing that you mentioned, which is absolutely right, which is that anybody who’s watched ESPN knows that during the day is basically a yak fest and these yakkers have moved on, right now they’re on the ‘Pete Rose, should he be eligible for the Hall of Fame?’ discussions.

Nima: Oh, thank God. (Laughs.) Thank God we’re back to that, the answer is yes.

Adam: I’ve always thought that the dopey afternoon ESPN show commentary is probably the hardest job in punditry because on a normal day how many times can you talk about where Tom Brady’s going to play next year, but I think during COVID, it’s turned into its own kind of Dadaism.

Dave Zirin: Oh, it’s amazing.

Adam: Yeah, I don’t know. I mean, in some sense my heart bleeds, but I mean, look, this is the network, of course, that I would say 80 percent of their commentary is sort of very anti-union, sort of deals and kind of racialized as, you know —

Dave Zirin: Political and amazing reporters over the years, they switched presidents from a guy who started The Undefeated and he believed that ESPN should have some form of social responsibility and then the new guy in there is a guy named Joey Pitaro, who’s been very explicit about the fact that he does not want, like politics, not part of sports, ‘We don’t want our commentators to be treading on this ground.’ And they’ve unwinded the amazing program Outside the Lines, which was everyday like this oasis, like a critical look at a serious issue in sports and now Outside the Lines is just like this little add on to Saturday Sports Center where they just use the branding that was developed of Outside the Lines. They forced out the longtime host of Outside the Lines, Bob Ley, someone who fought to have me on that network on Outside the Lines like once a week about, you know, this is like 10 years ago, but he, you know, and as soon as he left any pretension I had of ever being a voice on there left as well. To be clear, not a paid voice, that was never an aspiration, but just to be a commentator on a particular topic like, you know, like NFL protests or something like that or the Olympics.

Bob Ley of Outside the Lines. (Rich Arden / ESPN Images)

Adam: Yeah, a very dry run for this seems to be, I don’t know I look back at these Eagle Elliott hold out when basically Jerry Jones come on once a week, once every three days to talk about how they can play without him, giving the owners just as soapbox to basically go unchallenged and to promote anti-worker stuff and I fear that if it comes to a pass or we get to a point where there’s tension between players’ unions, ESPN will basically become a 24 hour anti-players’ union commercial.

Dave Zirin: Absolutely and filtering through pro-Trump messages throughout the election year and totally playing that side of it up. The previous ESPN guy, I didn’t mention his name was John Skipper, he’s the one who started The Undefeated, he recognized that there needed to be black voices, female voices as part of the landscape. Since Joey Pitaro has taken over that’s become more branding than it is trying to speak critically about racial issues and issues of gender and sports. So it’s a hellscape there right now. I mean, the best people are either on their way out or they’re just not getting their stuff printed. And the idea that they would be like these even handed people in the context of will we or will we not have an NFL season? It is like somebody being in a desert debating whether or not they should have water, they need the water and they’re not going to be able to operate without it. So it’s going to be ugly from a media perspective. There will be, pardon the mixed sports metaphor, there’s going to be a full court press to get the NFL back on that field.

Adam: I mean, some people listening would say, ‘Okay, well, of course, it’s ESPN, they’re, you know, they’re just Disney, they’re going to boost the NFL mindlessly,’ but I think a lot of people watching it don’t quite know and I’m sure you got this pushback with some of your criticism of the Michael Jordan hagiography where people say, ‘Well, of course, they’re going to just toe the line,’ but it’s like, yeah, but some people don’t know that, and it still matters that they basically have no credibility left because they did used to have some independence.

Dave Zirin: Exactly and they’ve always had the pretension of journalism, and said, ‘Well, we do the entertainment, but we also do the journalism.’ Over the years, I’ve interviewed folks who worked there about what it’s like to work there and things like that and for years they always spoke about “the wall.” Everyone knew what you meant by “the wall” and the wall was between the journalists who usually were brought in from the best newspapers from around the country and done the most important investigative work, they end up on ESPN and then the wall between that and the entertainment and the broadcasters and the people trying to hype up the game so people watch. The wall is gone. And the people there acknowledge that. The wall has been absolutely mortarized. It’s not there anymore. But people who don’t realize that, people who remember ESPN as ‘Oh, they’re the people who broke the concussion stories’ or ‘They’re the people who did the OJ 30 for 30. That was amazing,’ you know, they watch the Jordan doc and expect something different and when they’re spoonfed Michael Jordan porn for 10 hours they’re like, ‘Oh, wow, I guess that’s the real story.’ Meanwhile, Scottie Pippen has not been heard from since they started airing these docs. Meanwhile, Horace Grant —

Nima: What about Toni Kukoc? What about Toni?

Dave Zirin: Horace Grant eviscerated the entire doc today, it’s freaking hilarious, please look that up but that really didn’t make its way onto the screen.

Adam: Yeah, I like the way they, I’m only on episode five, but the way they completely hand waved away the ‘Republicans buy sneakers’ line by having Obama come on…Both Sides platitude.

Nima: They’re like, ‘Yeah, but it’s, but it’s hard.’

Adam: It was like three and a half minutes of screen time and I’m like, ‘oh, okay, I guess we’re past that. Now. Let’s move on.’

Dave Zirin: And the gravity of Barack Obama, ‘For those of us who want athletes to say more… eh he didn’t.’ It’s like, oh, that’s all you got?

Nima: Okay!

Adam: That’s the definition of box checking. But anyway, anyway.

Nima: So this idea of culture war can’t be understated. When we get to kind of the homestretch of what’s going to be a nightmarish election season and it’s coinciding with people really getting fed up with this, people just being over it and feeling like, ‘If I just pretend it’s not real, then it’s not real,’ and like, if we close our eyes, what will happen? How many people will die that those of us who get to survive will be able to tolerate and justify, just so that we can get to some semblance of what we want to call normal just because we’re over it, you know, I don’t want to say bored because a lot of people are super busy. So bored with what this is, with this kind of life, whatever version of that, maybe whether you’re at a lovely summer home on the beach, or if you are still having to work every single day just to pay rent which inexplicably is not canceled. So whatever version of that there is this idea that sports can be cathartic, it’s the Savior, it’s the thing that, you know, you get to look forward to, and when that is ripped away, it makes this reality seem even more real, which is why I think, as you’ve written, Dave, as we’ve been talking about, like getting that back, is going to be seen as a Trump victory. It’ll be like ‘I saved football. I saved the NFL. I saved everyone’s mental capacity to exist in this space’ and it will be crushing. It’ll be a mighty blow. What is the way do you think that science and health can be put forward by say, those opposing a Trumpian view, a Trumpian manipulation of his kind of propaganda without adhering to the framework that he’s going to use or that the right-wing is going to use? What is the way around this without seeming just like buzz kills?

Dave Zirin: Yeah, seeming anti-football. I mean, first and foremost, before answering that question, I just like to be clear, Trump understands the power of football like nobody since Richard Nixon. He gets football. I mean, remember, Trump wanted to be the owner of the Buffalo Bills and the NFL owners wouldn’t let him and if they had, he wouldn’t be president right now because for him, that was the crème de la crème, you know, entering that club but they thought he was to gauche to disgusting into sleazy so they didn’t let him become an NFL owner.

Nima: (Laughs.) To join the NFL owners’ club.

Dave Zirin: Yes.

Adam: If only they had made George W. Bush the Commissioner of Baseball too.

Dave Zirin: Yeah, it would have been —

Adam: We could have avoided all this if sports just took these people away from us, but go ahead.

Nima: Yeah.

Dave Zirin: But they’re not good enough sports. Too stupid or too sleazy.

Nima: (Laughs.) So they have to become presidents.

Dave Zirin: Yeah. So they have to become presidents. It’s all it’s left for them. So Trump’s always understood. He understood it when he ran the USFL into the ground, because he wanted the USFL to compete with the NFL in the fall, because that’s when the religion actually matters, in the fall, like screw that spring football that was too second rate for Donald Trump and so he destroyed what was a pretty awesome league. So he gets football and he obviously, you guys mentioned this earlier, he certainly got it with Kaepernick, and instead of doing what a lot of people in media were doing, which was not everybody, but a lot of people were like, ‘Okay, what are the concerns? What are the issues? Let’s talk about Philando Castile, let’s talk about Alton Sterling.’ Donald Trump took all of that and set it on fire, and shifted the media narrative to be much more about, ‘Which side are you on? I’m on the side of saying these are unpatriotic sons of bitches. Who’s with me?’ And then when he does that he’s able to touch on something that’s huge in white America, which is, you know, love black athletes, hate black people, you know, that black athletes are great as long as they perform, but not when they speak out. That gets to the answer to the question though, because obviously, this isn’t only about “the black athlete,” but it is about the NFL athlete.

If we’re going to see any resistance to what we’re talking about, it’s not going to come through the media, it’s not going to come through, because the media is either compromised or too small, the ones that aren’t compromised to make a dent in this conversation, it’s not going to come from politicians on the Democratic side, who are also I think, going to be scared. I mean, as we’re seeing with Gavin Newsom right now, to go up against Big Football, but it’s going to take the players standing up for their own health and their own safety. It’s going to take players doing what Sean Doolittle, the relief pitcher for the Washington Nationals did last week, which was put out this tweet storm, about this idea of opening up Major League Baseball, by asking all the health questions, and he wasn’t like because, you know, all the union was arguing about was money, being like ‘We were promised prorated contracts, it’s an outrage for you to slip in a salary cap’ and Sean Doolittle’s like ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, this should not be a financial negotiation. This is about our lives. This is about whether or not we’re going to infect our moms and grandmothers, what are you talking about?’ And he put out like a ton of articles and everybody then is citing Sean Doolittle. In every article that I saw about ‘should Major League Baseball reopen’ and if he doesn’t speak out, even ESPN is quoting Sean Doolittle at great length, and so it’s like if he doesn’t speak out, that concern gets left on the cutting room floor.

So we’re going to have to look at players speaking out. I know some players behind the scenes, a couple of them, I’m going to be arguing with them that this is something they need to do. I mean, I want to try to enlist other people to do the same because if we’re not, if we’re not in active conversation with these athletes, if we’re not actually trying to move them politically, then the connections are just, you know, we’re just jock sniffing, you know, we’re not trying to do anything with it and it’s going to take, I think, debates and discussions with the most conscious athletes, that basically the terms of the debate are going to be let’s talk about your health, and what it could mean to reopen and let’s talk about the realities of that.

Adam: Yeah, it’s very unlikely, but I would think that in a sort of moral universe, that the burden would fall disproportionately or ought to fall disproportionately on white athletes with credibility in those circles, like your J.J. Watt or your Tom Brady, again, probably not going to happen, but maybe on some modicum of solidarity with the union, or with their fellow players they can maybe take the lead on that because again, it seems, like you said, no one else is really going to have any kind of moral standing. Obviously, the corporate networks aren’t going to really do it. One of the things we talk a lot about on the show during the COVID crisis is this idea that the right-wing is offering this poison pill solution, this fake solution. They call it a reopening. It’s not a reopening. If I showed up with a Pez dispenser and said, this is a perpetual motion machine that does not make it a perpetual motion machine, because we are going to temporarily quote-unquote “reopen” then just go back to where we were a month ago, because that’s just basic epidemiology and science. It’s intractable. There’s no way of changing that. You can wish in one hand and shit in the other and see which one feels first, right? But the left as it were, the Democrats aren’t offering anything robust enough, no meaningful payouts, no guaranteed income, no universal healthcare, very little relief. There’s some UI stuff around the margins but that covers less than 40 percent of the population, if that, probably less than 30 if you include undocumented and informal workers, and this seems like another scenario where the right is sort of offering something, and the metaphor we use, you’re drowning and they’re throwing you barbed wire, but it’s something and I have no idea when it comes to the sort of great distractions or kind of secular religions of sports what the left could offer other than saying stay up till 2 am and watch Korean baseball, which is not very attractive, because the only options we have left are just scolding and how do you move this conversation from this idea of like, look, we want to have sports back as much as anyone, but you can’t act like science isn’t real and here’s a path forward, that’s accountable, and science driven and centers the workers and the concession workers and the custodial workers and the players and not billionaire owners and I guess what I’m asking you is if you were someone like a Democratic policy shop, for example, or let’s say you work for, I don’t know, the Biden campaign or you work for a Democratic senator, what would you tell sports fans who are chomping at the bit for some sort of normalcy?

Dave Zirin: What I would do and what I would advise to do is I would be reaching out to some of the obviously politically sympathetic NFL players, particularly the ones who just signed that statement about the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, and Tom Brady was one of the names on that list, by the way, but I would be reaching out to those players and I would be doing press conferences with them and I would make it a political issue and I would have the players put themselves forward and say, ‘Look, if you only like us when we play, would you like us if we die? We are not going to do this.’ And I bet you, while a lot of fans do love the game, hate the players, love black athletes, hate black people, you know, while that dynamic is definitely there, there are also a lot of people who love the athletes as well. It’s not that basic that people just don’t care what the athletes have to say and I think if the athletes came forward, because that’s the thing, I can’t do it, but the Biden campaign could do it, they won’t do it, but they could do it. They have the power and reach to do it. But if they could organize the athletes to come out to form their own coalition, open only in terms of like, Open Safely, you know, ‘We’re the OS coalition,’ whatever they want to do. That would move the needle.

Nima: Yeah.

Dave Zirin: That would change the conversation the same way it changed the conversation about Trump calling Kaepernick ‘sons of bitches,’ it changed the the conversation when athletes started to come forward and speak on CNN and do that, like the polls, you did see it start to shift and you saw more people were able to actually say that the protests were about police brutality, instead of ‘Oh, it’s about the flag,’ or ‘Oh, it’s about the military.’ It actually did clarify things when players started to speak out. So that’s what I would do. That’s what Simone Sanders should be doing. I don’t have a great deal of faith that that will be done.

Adam: Yeah, because I guess I was just curious, what is an alternative narrative, you know, I think you’re right, like science before wishful thinking seems like a pretty good —

Nima: I mean, that’s pretty solid, I mean, I think that there’s something to and Dave, you’ve been writing about this for quite some time, which is, you know, the idea that athletes just need to stop being political and they need to shut up and play and if you change that to, well, if you’re saying shut up and play then what you really mean is shut up and die and if that is understood, that this is not about politics, this is about lives, this is about safety, and not just of the players and their families and their staff, and the stadium staff, but communities that go far beyond just that insular inner circle, which is massive still, but once that is understood, I think that can be something that Democrats or others pushing back on this can maybe try and gain a little traction, but singing the praises of, you know, we love sport just as much as you but it’s going to get dodgy, right? And like, you’re just going to wind up playing into the Trump kind of songbook and he’s going to be the one who’s like, ‘Well, so then open,’ and you’re going to be just caught and it’s just not going to be very compelling.

Dave Zirin: No games without players. That’s why that’s going to have to be the central question is what the players do and it’s not just any players, it’s going to have to be the players who actually do have job security, who come forward, who are recognizable in the community, they need to step forward with their families and say something if they don’t feel safe. Short of that I don’t see how this particular freight train stops.

Nima: So before we let you go, Dave, what are you currently up to beyond hanging out with your awesome family, but maybe also professionally, what do you have in store? What can we look forward to?

Dave Zirin: I’m actually doing something that’s keeping me at least on some sort of even keel during the coronavirus is that I’m writing a book called The Kaepernick Effect and it’s about people who were in middle school, high school, in college who took a knee and how it affected their lives in their communities and so what I’m doing is just I spend the days interviewing people and calling them up and speaking to people around the country from Beaumont, Texas to Chicago, Illinois. They have stories, they have great stories, so you know, in between helping my kids with their remote schooling assignments, I get to actually do the work, but not the work in a way that’s isolated and bouncing off the wall, but I get to talk to people. So that’s going well. So hopefully that’ll be out someday but I’ve interviewed about 40 people so far since I started a couple weeks ago and that’s been good.

High school volleyball players kneel during the national anthem in 2016. (Photo courtesy of Rosie Letofsky)

Adam: Well, make sure you get that really patronizing David Brooks column about how high school kids kneeling need to be more patriotic. Remember that?


He’s like, ‘Kids these days don’t appreciate America with all the kneeling’ and I’m like, ‘First off, it’s great that the jocks became cool and all the nerds became Nazis.’

Dave Zirin: Yeah, well, what a time to be alive.

Adam: I know.

Nima: Well, Dave Zirin, sports editor at The Nation magazine, host of course Edge of Sports podcast, the author of so many books, including What’s My Name, Fool?, Welcome to the Terrordome, Bad Sports, Brazil’s Dance with the Devil, Game Over and most recently, Jim Brown: Last Man Standing. Of course, you can follow him and his work @EdgeofSports on the Twitter machine and also the world wide web. Dave Zirin, thank you so much my friend for coming back on Citations Needed.

Dave Zirin: No, thanks for having me.


Adam: Yeah, I think the fact that the burden of pushing back against this will probably ultimately fall on a handful of let’s be honest, probably black athletes, is kind of embarrassing and it’s kind of a shame and hopefully will not come to pass. Again, a lot of this is, we understand somewhat speculative, but I do think this just doesn’t apply to football or not even sports, it applies to everything, which is how do Democrats repackage this reopening narrative? And friend of the show, wife of me, Sarah Lazare, wrote an article recently in In These Times about how the left needs to reclaim this reopening language because everybody wants to reopen. It sounds so great, right?

Nima: Exactly. It sounds like such a, dare I say, common sense desire, right? We all want this and if you’ve called what is happening now closing, and it’s not, but if you call it closing, if you brand it as we are closed for business, then what do we need to do to get past this? What will signal that we are done with this, that we have, those of us who have been lucky enough to survive have survived and it is, quote-unquote “reopening.” But that branding alone conceives the argument because who doesn’t want that and anyone fighting against that, or arguing against that, or challenging that narrative can be branded as someone who is inevitably doing something that you don’t want to do, right? And so you’re going to be on the side of well, I want to reopen, who doesn’t want to reopen? And so it’s reclaiming that narrative, as you were saying, Adam, what is the language that can be used?

Adam: Yeah, and this is what she wrote. She said, quote, “There is public will to do what’s needed to prevent people from being sacrificed, yet the Right is pushing a fake reopening that will only kill people and invite more shutdowns. As long as Democrats and the Left cede the ground of what “reopening” should look like, the messaging war is being lost. Everyone urgently wants to see a genuine reopening. We must show that we have a real, workable plan to do so — and that people’s present sacrifices are towards this ultimate goal — not treat a rushed, far-right campaign as something remotely resembling what a real “reopening” would look like. It’s not, and we need to make sure the public knows this.” Unquote. Now, and this is, again, as a point that Dave made, the point we’re making, is that we can’t say this is reopening, we can’t even say this is the NFL opening. This is a fiction, there is no science, no mainstream scientists signing off into any of this, that will help mitigate the relative harm but the disease without mass testing and contact tracing or a vaccine is not going anywhere, it will be exactly where it is in March of 2020 and September of 2020, there’s not going to be any fundamental difference and we need to start saying, again, ‘You love football, you love baseball, you love basketball. Everyone does. But here’s how we do it.’ We do it with science driven, logical, rational, data driven opening that is not just rah rah America, let’s fly over some fucking jets and say it’s open because there’s some sort of dictatorial edict the president says it is, but it’s not.

Nima: By sheer force of will, we will get football back and therefore we have beaten coronavirus.

Adam: It’s a Karl Rove-ian assertion of reality and it’s just the virus can’t just be asserted out by sheer will because we say it will and we’re already seeing this, by the way, with how states like Georgia and Texas are seeing this huge uptick in coronavirus cases because their governors just said, poof, wave the magic wand, it’s done and it’s like, no, it’s not done, it’s going to come back and it makes no sense to shut down things in March And then just to quote- unquote “reopen” them in September, when the fundamental basics of this virus are unchanged.

Nima: That is kind of what we’re talking about today. It was great to talk to Dave about, it was great to have the framing of sports, sports are so crucial to how we understand our culture to so many of us, especially in the United States, and when it comes to sports in the US, nothing is bigger than the NFL and so it was great to tease this out that way. Thank you, everyone, for listening to this Citations Needed News Brief. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks everyone for listening again, we will be back next week with another full length episode. We’ll catch you next then.


This Citations Needed News Brief was released on Wednesday, May 27, 2020.

Transcription by Morgan McAslan.