Q&A: Dave Zirin (Part 1 of 2)

Our guest for this Q&A is truly in a golden state of mind. I'm talking about none other than progressive sportswriter Dave Zirin who was awarded Press Action's Sportswriter of the Year in 2005 and 2006. Dave is the author of 3 books that you should definitely check out (click on each book image to find out more):

Welcome to the Terrordome   Muhammad Ali Handbook   What's My Name, Fool!

Here's a clip of Dave and Chuck D telling you why you need to Believe the Hype about Welcome to the Terrordome:

Dave breaks down the significance behind the title of his book "What's My Name, Fool!":

I want to highly recommend Dave's books, particularly the chapter from Welcome to the Terrordome titled "The NBA and the Two Souls of Hip-Hop". It's a must read for hoops junkies whose consciousness extends beyond the box score.

You can find out more about Dave over at his bio on his site Edge of Sports, but here's a snippet:

Robert Lipsyte says he is "the best young sportswriter in the United States." He is both a columnist for SLAM Magazine, a regular contributor to the Nation Magazine, and a regular op-ed writer for the Los Angeles Times. He also has an online column on Sports Illustrated’s website, si.com.

Zirin has brought his blend of sports and politics to multiple television programs including ESPN's Outside the Lines, ESPN Classic, the BBC's Extratime, CNBC's The Big Idea with Donny Deutsch (debating steroids with Jose Canseco and John Rocker), C-SPAN's BookTV, the WNBC Morning News in New York City; and Democracy Now with Amy Goodman.

He has also been on numerous national radio programs including National Public Radio's Talk of the Nation; Air America and XM Radio's On the Real' with Chuck D and Gia'na Garel; The Laura Flanders Show; Radio Nation with Marc Cooper; ESPN radio; Stars and Stripes Radio; WOL's The Joe Madison Show; Pacifica's Hard Knock Radio, and many others.

He is also the Thursday morning sports voice on WBAI's award winning "Wake Up Call."

Zirin is also working on "A People's History of Sports in the United States," part of Howard Zinn's People's History series for the New Press. In addition he just signed to do a book with Scribner (Simon & Schuster.)

Zirin is the author of a children's book called "My Name is Erica Montoya de la Cruz" (RC Owen).

He is working on a sports documentary with Barbara Kopple's Cabin Creek films on sports and social movements in the United States.

Zirin's writing has also appeared in New York Newsday, the Baltimore Sun, The Dallas/Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, the Houston Chronicle, CBSNEWS.com, The Pittsburgh Courier, The Source, and numerous other publications.

An interview you don't want to miss after the jump!

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Golden State of Mind: In your book you pointed out that David Stern hired Matthew Dowd, the Personal Relations brain behind the Bush administration to give the league more "red-state appeal." This seems like a curious hire given the league's historically strong ties with the hip-hop community, so much so that a little over a year ago in an interview with Jeff Chang for the PBS POV Border Talk special, ad director John Jay pronounced hoops as the 5th pillar of Hip Hop. Is this hire indicative that something else is at stake here for the NBA besides dollars and cents? Could you elaborate on why you thought Stern made this move and how race and politics plays out in the economy of the NBA? Also if Stern, Dowd, and the league are in true pursuit of corporate dollars and red-state appeal instead of the green coming in from the hip-hop crowd, what additional policy decisions do you foresee in the NBA?

Dave Zirin: No question whatsoever, hiring Dowd was Stern's play at broadening the league's appeal. Ticket prices have made entry to games by "hip hop fans" prohibitive. Ask your friends – your biggest NBA heads – how many games they have actually attended in person last year, and the answer is upsetting. This is the league giving the back of its hand to its most loyal fans. But it is also about Stern's misreading of the political moment. Stern is a Democrat and I would guess if you asked him he would describe himself as politically liberal, but this whole country went crazy after 9/11 that this was "red state America" and "Bush country" dominated by "values voters." By implication, Stern is expressing corporate concern that "values voters" don't want to see a majority black league dominated by tattooed, hip hop listening players. Many of the heavy handed policy questions the league has taken up in recent years is linked to this. Which leads to your next question….


Golden State of Mind:
Let's say the melee in suburban Auburn Hills (not urban Detroit which unfairly got a bad rap for the incident) never happened. Do you think we'd still see the NBA impose a dress code, age limit, and zero tolerance for debating calls with the referees. Was that night really that pivotal in its effect on the NBA landscape or was its impact overblown? Let's say Allen Iverson never played in the league. Would Commisioner David Stern and the rest of the league offices think the league needed those rules, particularly the dress code?

Dave Zirin: This is a fascinating question. It's like "what if Hitler instead of attacking the USSR had seized the oil fields of the Middle East", what if Lincoln had decided to make it a Blockbuster night." On the one hand, there is no way I think we get "Law and Order NBA" if the "malice in the palace" doesn't happen. On the other hand, if it wasn't Auburn Hills, it would have been something else and somewhere else. This hip hop vs. corporate culture dynamic was going to go down somewhere: too many divisions, too much cultural dissonance, too much racism and disrespect at games from loud mouth fans in the executive seats who think high ticket prices gives them to right to talk whatever smack they want. In retrospect, I'm surprised it didn't happen sooner. But the larger point, is that the dress code, banning hot spots on the road, zero tolerance talking to refs, banning ipods on the layup line…. All this was going to go down – or was already in the works. Auburn Hills gave Stern the opportunity to ram it all through. (BTW: I agree with the IPOD rule. That's just weak. Take off the damn ipod. That's for everyone, not just the NBA players among us.)


Golden State of Mind:
With regards to the commonly held perception that the league is suffering a decline in NBA spectatorship (ticket sales and Nielsen ratings), some sports analysts and cultural critics blame hip-hop culture and representation in the league for the recent lull. But is there any statistical or quantifiable evidence that hip-hop culture is responsible these downward trends in the NBA brand? Is hip-hop culture implicated in the development of the NBA brand? If yes, how so?

Dave Zirin: Of course there is no evidence hip hop has anything to do with declining ratings. Any declining ratings begins and ends with the product: too many teams take tank-quilizers at the end of the year, too many coaches are scared for their jobs and call for an uninspired brand of ball, too many refs call fouls whenever superstars are breathed upon, and too many players are worried about showing personality and becoming media targets (not to shock you, but I've met a bunch of players funnier and more interesting than Arenas. The difference is that he has the guts to let his freak flag fly.) Look at Golden State. Their series against Dallas did great in attendance and ratings. This is the team of Steven Jack. Why? Because they were entertaining as shit. Hell, I almost bought one of those City shirts on line out of respect. And it was crazy the way Stephen Jackson was reborn in that series by the announcers from being a thug to having heart and being a champion. But he's just himself: good, bad, and ugly like the rest of us. Listening to the announcers was a hell of an object lesson how perception is shaped.

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You've read some of Dave's thoughts as well as my and DJ Fuzzy Logic's embedded in the question set that you can probably infer, but we'd love to hear from you all as well. What are your thoughts with regards to the NBA's many attempts at "red-state appeal", the recent rule changes mentioned above, and hip-hop culture's role on the NBA's declining ratings?


Make sure to check out Part II of our interview with Dave.


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