Athletes in Action


Medford, Massachusetts—It’s fair to say that never in the history of the universe had the World Trade Organization, steroids, Nelson Mandela, and NFL salary caps been mentioned in the same collective breath. But last weekend that range of seeming non sequiturs was uttered at Tufts University, where a gathering of sports activists and academics came together to share ideas about the status and future of sports. Most attendees—including sports economist Andrew Zimbalist; Richard Lapchick, head of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society; and über-sports journalist Frank DeFord—left the suburban Boston campus determined to change the face, direction, and soul of corporatized sports.

It’s an ambitious vision, to be sure. But a seed was planted. After three days of information-exchanging panels, an unscheduled Sunday-morning meeting took place, attended by a small, determined group of individuals from places as diverse as South Africa, Haiti, Canada, and Berkeley. While the meeting fell short of producing the hoped-for birth of an international sports-political advocacy group, it ended with an agreement to keep talking, e-mailing, and thinking. The event was sponsored by Education for Public Inquiry and International Citizenship, a remarkable yearlong undergraduate colloquium at Tufts. Directed by Sherman Teichman and his 30 students, EPIIC this year is focusing on “Global Games: Sports, Politics and Society.”

Teichman wanted to create momentum to build what he was informally calling “Athletes for Social Responsibility,” a new kind of organization for the 21st century to challenge the dominant values and politics of sports.

In case you haven’t noticed, sports is controlled by money, men, and global capitalism—sort of like everything else. So EPIIC invited a broad coalition to hash out a vision of what can and should be in sports. Dennis Brutus, the elderly South African exile who broke bricks in prison with Mandela, was there. He arrived full of energy despite an all-day flight from Bangkok, where he was organizing students against the WTO. Brutus, who led the successful sports boycott of South Africa in the ’70s, pronounced the world ripe again for a “new progressive alternative sports organization,” what with corruption in the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and an increasing disconnect between average fans and elite sports.

David Meggyesy, Western director of the National Football League Players Association, listened closely as scholars from the United Kingdom and South Africa implied that athletes in their nations need strong unions. Founders of the new Canadian-based group called OATH—Olympics Advocates Together Honorably—spoke out about the need for a louder athletes’ voice. Congresswoman Patsy Mink of Hawaii, who helped write and pass Title IX in 1972, urged the conferees to fend off attacks against gender equity by the forces of congressional malehood.

Still, building a viable sports movement, like the one that linked up with the antiwar and women’s movements of the ’60s and ’70s, will be daunting. Market forces are everywhere. It might be easy to advocate “sports for all,” as some were espousing last weekend, where neighborhood gyms—not palatial stadiums—are built by taxpayers and corporations. It might be invigorating to imagine athletes shunning Nike and taking to the streets, but how’s that going to happen? When will the moments arise to take sports back? With whom can concerned athletes, troubled fans, and political leaders align to link sports to human rights efforts? Those were questions that blossomed on the Tufts campus last week.

Stay tuned for the answers.