The Nation Editor Dave Zirin On How COVID-19 Is Reshaping Sports
Many billionaire sports moguls, NCAA officials, and Olympic leaders seem to care more about profit than the well-being of athletes or fans.
Many billionaire sports moguls, NCAA officials, and Olympic leaders seem to care more about profit than the well-being of athletes or fans.
This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.
Marc Steiner: Welcome to the Real News. I’m Marc Steiner, good to have you all with us. Now COVID-19 is affecting every aspect of our lives and that’s true for the world of sports in spades. The International Olympic Committee finally called off the Tokyo Summer Olympics. The IOC call themselves, a beacon to the world, but the beacon was Olympian athletes past and present and Olympic committees who called for this postponement, forcing the IOC to cancel games. What’s behind this? Clearly they worry more about their Olympian profit than the wellbeing of the athletes and all the people who might attend, and that’s just the latest news.
Sports are on shutdown everywhere. Stadiums, arenas, coliseums are closed. Professional and college sports are on corona hiatus. What happens to the thousands of men and women who sell you refreshments, who take your tickets, show you to your seats, who clean the stadiums and its lavoratories, who probably work for minimum wage? What happens to them? Some owners and players are stepping up to make sure they’re paid, but many of the universe could care less. So how could this alter the world of sports itself once this is done? Who better to answer those questions than Dave Zirin, who wrote about all this in a series of articles for The Nation magazine and joins us now. Welcome back, Dave. Good to have you with us.
Dave Zirin: It’s great to be here, Marc.
Marc Steiner: And Dave Zirin, of course, is The Nation magazine’s sports editor, the author of eight books on the politics of sports. His most recent being Brazil’s Dance with the Devil, The Olympic Cup, The Olympics, and the Fight for Democracy. He hosts The Nation’s Edge of Sports podcast and co-hosts at WPFW’s The Collision with Etan Thomas and still has time to talk to us for a minute.
So, Dave, let’s just begin with … Take a step backwards for a moment before we talk about the Olympics or anything else, I want to focus on an article you did, a conversation with Dr. Adia Benton. And it was really fascinating in terms of how looking at this broader question of sports and the coronavirus and how different aspects of the sports games have responded to it differently. Talk a bit about what that conversation was about.
Dave Zirin: Well, yeah, I talked to Dr. Benton who is very experienced in these matters about the ways in which the sports world has responded to the coronavirus. And one of the things that we talked about is how uneven it’s been throughout the sports world, or at least when the time we did that interview was incredibly uneven. You had leagues like the National Basketball Association shut down very quickly, particularly after all star center Rudy Gobert was found to have coronavirus, which led to a lot of awareness among other players getting tested. And then the question of why were they getting tests even though they were asymptomatic ahead of people in the population who needed them? So that was a whole ball of worms or sorry a can of worms, ball of wax.
Marc Steiner: Ball, can.
Dave Zirin: Yeah, all that good stuff. And as we went through it, there were other sports as well that I think reflect a lot about the sports, like the NCAA was very late to cancel March Madness. And one of the reasons why is that they get 89% of their operating revenue from the highly exploitative festival that is bracketology in the NCAA tournament. So there was that aspect of it. Then you have other sports, which we might deem more red state sports like NASCAR and Ultimate Fighting Championship, which were extremely slow to recognize the reality of the coronavirus. And then at long last, you have the Olympics, the last scoundrel if you will, deciding that they were only going to shut down operations this week and only deciding, as you said, because of an absolute upsurge from athletes and national federations.
Marc Steiner: The Olympics themselves, and you can actually maybe add the NCAA into this as well, I mean, this really has to do with the domination of sports by money, by big money, by huge profits. I mean that’s what’s driving the reluctance to say no, to say we’ve got to stop. And I think that’s something that it’s not talked about enough.
Dave Zirin: Absolutely. If you don’t understand the billions of dollars at stake, you can’t understand why these decisions were made as quickly as they were or as slowly as they were. For example, when it comes to the National Basketball Association, one could be very cynical and say because the players are paid so much money, they constitute investments on behalf of the billionaire class of franchise owners and therefore, that they wanted to shut down the league in order to protect their investments in the NCAA. They obviously invest no salary in the players themselves. It’s all pure profit off the top when it comes to the players. And so there, there was a different kind of social weight to keep the trains moving on time.
Marc Steiner: When we talk about the NBA, before I go back to the Olympics for a minute, this is really interesting to me, you wrote about a whole group of players, Zion Williamson and Giannis Antetokounmpo. And others who-
Dave Zirin: Antetokounmpo.
Marc Steiner: Thank you. Who put their money up saying we’re going to pay the workers in these stadiums. And you had people like Cuban of the Mavericks and Tony Ressler of the Atlanta Hawks doing some similar stuff. And this is a real divide there. I mean, we’re talking about men and women who work these stadiums make very little money, clean up our crap in the bathrooms could be left out to hang to dry. But there are players with class consciousness that are actually stepping up and saying, “We’re not going to let that happen.”
Dave Zirin: Yeah, and a recent example of this, since I’ve written that article that got a lot of publicity this week, was with the Philadelphia 76ers where their All-Star center, Joel Embiid said he was going to give $500,000 to pay the workers and that so humiliated the ownership and embarrassed them, that they put out a statement just yesterday that they would pay their workers during the duration of this crisis. And that was something that they were not going to do until Embiid stepped up and put his money down.
I do think that there is this strong connection, because I know we view this often as, these are millionaire athletes and they play a game and all the tropes that are used against athletes and class consciousness. You have to remember the backgrounds that many of these athletes come from are extremely working class and at times very impoverished backgrounds. So there is this strong connection that these athletes have with the workers at the stadiums, this strong connection of what it means to struggle to survive. That’s something that the ownership class just will never understand.
Marc Steiner: I mean, one of the first questions is who are these bloody billionaires who could give a crap about the men and women who work in these stadiums? I mean, it’s almost like they are liberal view of conservative Trump’s voice that action when it comes to these people’s lives of working class. It’s just unconscionable. I’m sorry to be so … It enrages me.
Dave Zirin: It is enraging and it’s a microcosm because I think it should be enraging to all of us how little the billionaire class has done since this thing has started. I mean, where are they? I mean, all the time we’re told that we need to have a plutocracy in this country and this incredible gap between rich and poor because of philanthropy. Because if we actually did progressive taxation on the super rich, they would stop giving money to these charities. And yet, I don’t see it since coronavirus came forward.
I don’t see them stepping up to do much of anything and actually, it’s embarrassing. It would shame a nation of savages what the billionaire class has done in this country, which is nearly nothing, or trying to lobby Congress to make sure that this bill that’s going through is as much of a slush fund for the super rich as possible. It’s disgusting. Now when you talk about professional sports owners, they tend to fall into one of two categories. They are either legacy owners.
So their grandparents were the people who built their wealth on the backs of enslaved people in this country, or on the railroads. And then this is the money that they have now. It’s been generational wealth that’s been passed down and only become more concentrated. Or, you have people who made huge amounts of money in the tech bubble or in the world of Bain Capital style and investments, hedge fund investments, hedge fund managers who’ve made out like bandits. And then they buy these teams as almost like hobbies for themselves.
So you’ve got old money and new money and there is always a tension between old money and new money when it comes to franchise bosses and how they argue with each other, oftentimes when they bicker. But at the end of the day, they’re just hostile brothers and their solidarity is with them before it’s ever going to be with the players, let alone stadium workers.
Marc Steiner: There’re couple of questions about the future, I mean, how do you think this COVID-19 pandemic could change the nature of sports? I mean, we’re going to see the entire seasons being canceled. It changes nature of capital investments of sports and what they get out of it. I remember back in the day, growing up in the 50s as a kid playing ball, all the players actually lived in your neighborhood because nobody made all that money. They were just playing the game. So how do you think this might change the nature of sports itself?
Dave Zirin: That’s the great unknown, Mark. I mean, I think if everything changes coming out of this coronavirus pandemic, and I do think a lot is going to change going forward, you’re either going to see sports become a panacea for the society that’s trying to normalize itself. I think that’s very possible. Or you’re going to see sports become something that’s left on the curve, especially in terms of attending live events because of fear of a regeneration of viruses.
If we live in an era of occurring or reoccurring pandemics, live sporting attendance is going to take a tumble. That’s going to take a huge bite out of the profits of ownership. That means it’s going to take a big bite out of salaries of the players themselves because … and then it’s going to take a bite out of the salaries of stadium workers because, pardon my French, but when it comes to trickle down economics, the shit always rolls downhill.
Marc Steiner: Amen.
Dave Zirin: And so, what you’re going to see is what amounts to a regressive taxation in the world of sports as the athletes and the workers are forced to pay for the crisis that coronavirus could inflict on the world of sports.
Marc Steiner: What about the Olympics? Let’s end with the Olympics, where this might take the Olympics. I mean, they were forced to cancel this out again. We’re talking about tens or hundreds of millions dollars in profit for these companies who support the Olympics. So where might that take the Olympics? They’re talking about maybe 2021 maybe the Olympics. They haven’t been canceled since World War II. So what about its future?
Dave Zirin: Well, I think there is going to be a real reassessment about these kinds of global mega events, whether you’re talking about the World Cup, whether you’re talking about the Olympics and how they can be staged in a way that’s healthy for the globe at large. Whether you’re talking about the environmental impact, which is heavy of these games, or whether you’re talking about just what the games do to host countries, particularly working people in host countries, talking about the debt that a country has to acquire and that is required, the displacement that takes place when people are pushed out of their homes to build stadiums or the athlete’s village, the militarization of public space, which always comes with the Olympics.
Like the arming of a security state that doesn’t always unwind back to normal days when the Olympics are over, particularly in terms of whether you’re talking about … in Brazil for example, drones that were used, facial recognition software, all things that were put in place for the Olympics that never got put back in their box. So I think there is going to have to be a reassessment of whether those things are first of all, should exist in the world that we want to live in. And second of all, in an age of global pandemics, do we really want to have these global events where hundreds of thousands of people gather in a given city and then return to their countries? It seems like a way to put diseases on fast forward and viruses on fast forward when we should be talking about containment.
Marc Steiner: This [inaudible 00:12:47] to me it’s like the contradictions of capitalism as seen through the pain of this pandemic, which also capitalism had some root in the cause of the pandemic. It also has to do with capitalism development and exploitation. But the fact that this really raises the contradictions, I think in ways that people have not seen up close as this.
Dave Zirin: Absolutely.
Marc Steiner: Well, Dave Zirin it’s always a pleasure to talk with you. I really appreciate your writing and your taking the time for us here at the Real News and I look forward to many more conversations.
Dave Zirin: Thank you so much. And I want to say how much I really appreciate the Real News Network for everything Real News is doing right now. We need unembedded media so much in this pandemic period. So thank you for the work you’re doing, Mark, and thank you all the engineers and producers that make this possible.
Marc Steiner: I appreciate that and I appreciate you. And I’m Marc Steiner here at the Real News Network. Thank you all for joining us. Let us know what you think. Give us some ideas and take care.