Out in the Open

'Sports does sever segregation and puncture privilege'

Sports writer Dave Zirin on how sport can be used as a force to fight racism and racial divides
In this Oct. 2, 2016 file photo, from left, San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker Eli Harold, quarterback Colin Kaepernick and safety Eric Reid kneel in protest during the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Dallas Cowboys in Santa Clara, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Dave Zirin remembers playing basketball as a kid in New York in the 1980s when racial tension in the city was particularly high.

"There were a series of incidents where black people were killed, either by police or by white gangs and this led to a tremendous amount of tension," says Dave.

On the court, he was usually the only white person with a lot of adults.

"What it forced me to confront was my place in these communities or my absence of a place in these communities.. How to be quiet. How to listen. How to try to earn people's respect in a way that wasn't about flaunting my whiteness but just trying to be a friend to people."

Dave says that experience taught him that sport could challenge the racial divide everyone was talking about and that it wasn't immutable.

"Sport does sever segregation and puncture privilege." 

According to Dave, it can bring conversations about race into spaces where they might not exist.

He uses the example of Seattle Garfield High School following in the steps of NFL player Colin Kaepernick, who decided to kneel during the national anthem.

"The football team — which is majority white at Garfield — decided to take a knee as a stance against racism...The women's soccer team and volleyball team also took knees. Cheerleaders took a knee. 

"These are kids at Garfield who could have chosen to either be hostile to Colin Kaepernick or turn the channel. And, Instead, it politicized them."

Dave also says that sport is a 'contested space' when it comes to identity politics.

"There's that old expression, there's no such thing as being a little bit pregnant. You either are or you aren't." says Dave

"Sports is the converse of that. Sports can be a little bit racist and can be a little bit anti-racist. There are these two traditions that exist in sports."