Athletes and sports media personalities are in a unique position, perhaps now more than ever, to either resist the winds of misogyny and racial and religious prejudice, or to fan them, political sportswriter Dave Zirin says.
On Friday evening at Concordia University, Zirin, who is sports editor of The Nation magazine, a frequent guest on CBC Radio’s Q sports panel, and hosts the Edge of Sports podcast, will take part in a panel discussion called Taking a Knee, Taking a Stand: Resistance and Sport in the Age of Trump. He will be joined by freelance writer and sports activist Shireen Ahmed, Concordia’s Sexual Assault Resource Centre coordinator Jennifer Drummond and poet and anti-racism organizer Rana Salah.
While some sports fans may want their sports heroes to stay out of politics and contentious societal issues — to just “shut up and play” as some have put it — Zirin says athletes and those who write or talk about them in the media should be using their prominent platforms to change attitudes.
“The lens of sports allows for a popularizing of conversations that may otherwise just take place in corners,” Zirin said in an interview with The Montreal Gazette. “And the main point of discourse is not just for us to speak among ourselves but to try to include a broader swath of people. Sports has a unique power to do that. Sometimes it does it for good and sometimes it does it for ill.”
Athletes through the ages have battled prejudice through their accomplishments, words and actions — from women demanding equal participation at the Olympics, to NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick refusing to stand during the U.S. national anthem to protest oppression against African Americans. But sports banter, whether in the locker room or on camera has also been known to reflect and encourage sexist, racist, homophobic and xenophobic attitudes.
Zirin, who is a columnist for The Progressive and Slam magazines, tries to make a point in his writing to encourage and congratulate athletes who speak out against injustice.
“For too long in sports, as a way to protect the bottom line and the interests of (team owners), there has been a policing of dissent, a policing of that platform to make sure that if athletes did speak out, it was only for commercialism, for products, for the latest shoe line,” Zirin said. Athletes like Kaepernick are “taking it to another level, saying ‘if we are good enough to sell products and good enough to cheer for, we are good enough to (advocate for) these issues as well’, he said.
Shireen Ahmed, whose blog “Tales from a Hijabi Footballer” looks at sports, politics and women’s issues, got interested in writing about those issues when she realized the vast majority of sports writers were straight, able-bodied, white men, and that the “lens through which they see things might not be very nuanced.”
She wants to talk about how Islamaphobia and America’s increased scrutiny on Muslims travelling into the U.S. will affect athletes of all levels. She points to American Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, who was detained for two hours at customs in December, even before Trump took power, or four-time Olympic gold medallist Mo Farah, who was born in Somalia but lives in Oregon and publicly worried he might not be allowed back home because of Trump’s travel ban.
Ahmed, whose 15-year-old daughter recently had to cross the border into the U.S. with her competitive soccer team, is worried about how Trump’s policies will affect other young Canadian athletes over the next four years.
“I have a daughter who plays soccer competitively, and I had to take her to Buffalo (recently) … that entire experience is draining emotionally in the sense of having to mentally prepare your kid. Instead of saying, ‘Hey I need you to be really focused and don’t release your drop-kicks until you’re settled, and make sure you communicate with your defence,’ I’m saying things like, ‘in the event that we get separated and detained, this is what you need to know about your rights as a Canadian.
Sexual Assault Resource Centre coordinator Jennifer Drummond will talk about her “Leaders in Prevention” workshop. For the past two years, Drummond has led workshops on sexual consent for all the university’s sports teams, in an effort to transform “locker-room culture” and turn athletes into leaders on the issue of sexual violence.
“We are helping them see themselves as students with a certain status. (We tell them:) ‘People look up to you, you have a really important role to play here in the kind of culture we are creating at Concordia. People are looking to you as a role model and what kind of role model do you want to be?’ Hopefully that will be someone who challenges rape culture, hopefully that will be someone who supports survivors, and … someone who would never assault someone.’”
The panel discussion, which is free and open to the public and will take place Friday, Feb. 17, from 6:30 to 9 p.m at Concordia’s downtown campus at 1455 de Maisonneuve W., H-110 Auditorium.