Journalist Dave Zirin has made his career at the juncture where athletics meets activism. He’s the sports correspondent at the Nation, he launched the Edge of Sports imprint at Akashic Books, and he’s written and coauthored multiple titles that delve into the political side of sports. Zirin spoke with PW about why athletes, activism, and book publishing make such good teammates.
You’ve been writing about sports and activism since the early 2000s. Do you think the current moment is a particularly fruitful one for books on this subject?
Oh, absolutely. We have content right now precisely because athletes have been involved in movements, whether we’re talking about #MeToo or Black Lives Matter. Athletes are a part of this, and that lends itself to really good sportswriting, and that lends itself to books.
Howard Bryant, who’s one of the most astute writers we have, sports or otherwise, has a book coming out called The Heritage [Beacon, May], about the black athlete and the politics of patriotism. I think that book is going to land in a big way. And Colin Kaepernick is working on his own book right now.
How much of the uptick in books on activism in sports is thanks to Colin Kaepernick?
You could argue that this wave of athlete activism started after the killing of Trayvon Martin and the Miami Heat posing in their hoodies [in 2012]. Or the summer before Colin Kaepernick, in 2016, you had players in the WNBA, the Minnesota Lynx and other teams, who were protesting. But when Kaepernick does it, now you’re talking about the NFL and the most popular sport in the United States. When this blew up, you had people wanting to speak about it in a way that goes beyond social media and blog posts. It’s shaping an entire season of sports books.
Do you think these books will reach the people who most need to read them, or are they just preaching to the choir?
People who don’t want to read a book about racism might, for example, read a book by an athlete who’s speaking about racism, like Michael Bennett. His book is called Things That Make White People Uncomfortable [Haymarket], which is almost a dare for people to pick it up who may be offended by it. And that’s the goal: to get people who would be put off by that title to pick it up and say, “Let’s see how uncomfortable this makes me or not.”
Michael approached me about doing the book, not vice versa. He wanted to get his thoughts about everything that was happening, and the role of the athlete, on the page. [Zirin was Bennett’s cowriter.]
Have you heard from other athletes who are interested in writing books?
There certainly are a lot of folks who, because of Colin Kaepernick and this generation of athletes, now want to tell their stories. The response that he’s gotten is making other people confident. A lot of folks, particularly older athletes who found themselves drummed out of their sports, are saying, “Hey, my story matters. I didn’t sacrifice my career for nothing.” Courage is contagious.