Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Summer Read: Zirin's Bad Sports

Day 1 of the annual DanShanoff.com Summer Reading Series, featuring the best books of the summer for your vacation/beach/commuter/seasonal reading interests...

Today: "Bad Sports" by Dave Zirin

Dave Zirin is the conscience of sports media -- and one of the most essential writers of the genre.

That's because Zirin talks about the things the rest of us -- the sports punditocracy -- won't or can't, at least without the necessary gravitas, let alone the necessary command of both fact and nuance that are vital to talking about the thorniest issues in sports.

More than anything, Zirin is willing to live at the intersection of sports and politics -- brutal terrain for a few reasons, not the least of which is that fans, for the most part, hate mixing sports and politics. (That, and fans can agree on a team allegiance but otherwise hate each other's political leanings.)

But, again, Zirin's work is altogether necessary; almost every sportswriter who attempts to write about politics or socioeconomic issues as they relate to sports ends up failing in some essential way: They (or their outlets) are beholden to corporate interests; they lack a fundamental understanding of the issues (or, more importantly, the historical and social context of those issues); or they simply cannot summon the substance to match their own hysterics.

Or, more often than not, they claim they "can't touch" the issue. It's just too controversial -- which probably means it's important. Too important to be left in the hands of shallow thinkers.

Because of this fundamental unwillingness or inability to write about these issues, even on issues of populism -- as with Zirin's highly recommended new book "Bad Sports," about how corporate interests (particularly at the ownership level) can undermine sports for fans -- most writers lack the foundation to present cohesive and compelling arguments.

That is why it is so important that we have Zirin. And why it is so important that Zirin -- in addition to his writing at his own site (EdgeOfSports.com) or The Nation -- takes the time to put all of these compelling arguments in a single place like "Bad Sports," for fans to grasp the larger issues at hand. (Check out a good Q&A with Zirin that dives into the big themes of the book. And here is another.)

It isn't necessarily the things we want to talk about -- like this week's on-field NFL storyline or trade rumors or any number of other issues that dominate sports-talk radio and talking-head shows. It is the things we need to talk about -- that we should be talking about.

By the way: That's not to say that I agree with everything Zirin has to say. By nature, I am a populist with commercial leanings -- that is, I'm not just about putting fans first, but I think it makes the most business sense when owners and marketers put fans first, too.

And with the obvious exception of the ownership-political-developer axis related to stadium funding -- which dwarfs most marketing spending, btw -- I think many corporate folks, from the top on down, are increasingly recognizing how important it is to engage and empower fans with a new respect and spirit of collaboration and transparency. It is a net benefit for fans. Yes, there are the Donald Sterlings of the world -- but there are also the Ted Leonsis and Mark Cuban-style owners illuminating a new path for owners.

But the fact remains that these thorny, sports/political issues lack a natural home in sports: Political media find sports unnecessary; sports media fear alienating fans, sponsors and owners.

That's why I am so glad that Dave Zirin has made himself an indispensable part of the sports-fan experience, through his insightful takes on the latest news -- and through his challenging new book, "Bad Sports."

Coming tomorrow: Michael Weinreb's "Bigger Than the Game"

(Update: Just saw that Yahoo's terrific Dan Wetzel has produced his own summer-reading list. We've only got one crossover, for better or worse.)

-- D.S.

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