Not Just a Game: Power, Politics & American Sports

Film. By Dave Zirin and Jeremy Earp. 2010. 62 minutes.
A documentary based on the bestselling book A People’s History of Sports in the United States, Zirin demonstrates that American sports have long been at the center of some of the major political debates and struggles of our time. For 6th grade to adult.

Time Periods: 20th Century
Themes: African American, Media, Racism & Racial Identity, Sports, Women's History

notjustagameTo be clear, everyone — sports fans and non-fans alike — should see this movie.” Not Just a Game “will be especially useful for those who teach courses on the history and politics of sport in the U.S.  My sense is that teachers and scholars have been caught up in an endless repetition of the same three examples — Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, and the Black Power salute at 1968 Olympics — whenever they want to prove Zirin’s point that sports and politics do mix.  Certainly, these are important stories, and Not Just a Game gives them the attention they deserve.  But the documentary does one better by demolishing the sanitized narratives of athletes like Billie Jean King, Jackie Robinson, and Pat Tillman — athletes who, unlike Ali and Brown, rarely get discussed outside the context of vapid references to ‘tolerance’, ‘colorblindness’, or ‘service to country’.  Hopefully, the movie will cause some discomfort for those who, like many of my students, want desperately to believe that the sports they hold so dear are just a game. — Sean Dinces, “Putting the Politics Back into Sport,” Dissident Voice, February 23rd, 2011

In Not Just a Game, the powerful documentary based on his bestselling book A People’s History of Sports in the United States, Dave Zirin argues that far from providing merely escapist entertainment, American sports have long been at the center of some of the major political debates and struggles of our time.

The film is broken up into five parts: Introduction, In the Arena, Like a Girl, Breaking the Color Barrier, and The Courage of Athletes.

Zirin first traces how American sports have glamorized militarism, racism, sexism, and homophobia, then excavates a largely forgotten history of rebel athletes who stood up to power and fought for social justice beyond the field of play. The result is as deeply moving as it is exhilarating: nothing less than an alternative history of political struggle in the United States as seen through the games its people have played. [Producer’s description.]


Related Resources

Dave Zirin is the bestselling author of five books, the sports editor of the Nation magazine, and the host of Sirius XM Satellite’s popular weekly show, Edge of Sports Radio. His blog The Edge of Sports is read each week by thousands of people across the country. He is also a columnist for SLAM Magazine, The Progressive, and Sports Illustrated online, and his writing has appeared in numerous other publications, including the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, the New York Daily News, and the San Francisco Chronicle. Zirin has also brought his blend of sports and politics to multiple television programs, including ESPN’s Outside the Lines, MSNBC’s Countdown with Keith Olbermann, MSNBC’s Morning Joe, MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show, and Democracy Now! with Amy Goodman. Naomi Klein described his latest book, Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games We Love, as an “original and scathing look at how America works.”

Praise for Not Just a Game and Dave Zirin

If there were an award for ‘Most Valuable Sportswriter,’ I would vote for Dave Zirin. His writing combines vivid narrative, good humor, impressive knowledge of the game, and a keen awareness of the connection between sports and the world outside. — Howard Zinn

Dave Zirin puts the politics back in sports and makes good sports of politics. Not since Hunter S. Thompson has a sports writer shown the right snarl for the job. — Naomi Klein

The smartest and gutsiest sportswriter in America. — Robert Lipsyte, Former New York Times sports columnist

By turns moving, maddening, touching, enlightening, hilarious, and sad. I can not think of a better way to teach my students about such a wide array of issues than having them watch this film. — Ellen R. Hansen, Ph.D., Chair, Department of Social Sciences, Emporia State University

It’s a long time coming for a documentary like this to be made. Watching it was an absolutely fantastic experience. — Dr. John Carlos, 1968 Olympic medalist

Not Just a Game is a welcome counter-statement to those who insist that sport and politics do not mix. With passion and wit, Dave Zirin demonstrates persuasively how and why politics are a part of sport, and why sport matters to politics. Not Just a Game is sure to enlighten and enliven any classroom discussion of nationalism, gender, race, and class as they intersect with sport. — Michael L. Butterworth, Bowling Green State University, Author of Baseball and Rhetorics of Purity: The National Pastime and American Identity During the War on Terror

A very challenging documentary, especially for those prone to romanticize sports as a politics-free zone. Engagingly and articulately presented by Dave Zirin and infused with highly evocative file footage, the film illuminates how sports is, and always has been, drenched in the politics of class, race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality. It is a vivid work that does not only educate viewers about sports and its media, but can also educate the sports media about their own tunnel-visioned practice. — David Rowe, University of Western Sydney, Australia, Author of Sport, Culture and the Media: The Unruly Trinity

Not Just a Game puts to rest the myth that sports and politics don’t mix. Instead, David Zirin shows how sports play a central role in creating and sometimes contesting racism, sexism, militarism, and commercialized violence. Zirin, who has emerged as the most important progressive voice in American sport, challenges teachers, students, athletes and sports fans not to deny the existence of politics in sport, but instead, in the tradition of Tommie Smith and Billie Jean King, to take personal risks to ensure that sport becomes a realm for the promotion of egalitarian and peaceful human values and relations. — Michael A. Messner, University of Southern California, Author of It’s All for the Kids: Gender, Families and Youth Sports

With a profound commitment to social justice and human rights, Dave Zirin provocatively challenges us to rethink the cultural politics of sport and its impact on everyday life. Whether discussing such topics as the intersection of sport and militarism or the racial logics of sport in late-capitalism, Zirin contests at every turn the taken-for granted assumptions about and underlying power relations governing sport in the historical present. His film is a stunning achievement, boldly leading the next generation of American sportswriters toward a more honest, activist future. — Michael D. Giardina, Florida State University, Author of Youth Cultures & Sport: Identity, Power, and Politics

Not Just a Game exhibits the rare ability to reduce complex issues to their social and political cores, thereby providing audiences — more readily attuned to the banal superficialities of the sport media — with an informed critical lens with which to more progressively engage and experience American sport culture. It cleverly uses the popular images, events, and embodiments of American sport culture as an engaging vehicle for critiquing the gendered, sexist, racist, commercialized, and militaristic norms of contemporary American society more generally. Destined to be loathed and pilloried by the sporting mainstream, which is a clear indication of it success and importance as a critical and radical counterpoint. — David Andrews, University of Maryland School of Public Health, Author of Sport, Culture and Advertising

Although an adage proclaims sports and politics don’t mix, this powerful documentary presents a convincing argument to the contrary. According to sportswriter Dave Zirin, American sports have long been at the center of some of the major political debates and struggles.’ Pairing well-chosen game, interview, and film clips with insightful commentary, Zirin systematically demonstrates the link between athletics and society’s standards. He begins by equating football and its celebration of sacrifice, violence, and masculinity to the military, using football player Pat Tillman’s enlistment and tragic death as an example. Billie Jean King’s celebrated 1973 tennis victory over Bobby Riggs, and her influence on women’s sports is celebrated next. The color barrier is highlighted through footage of boxer Jack Johnson and baseball icon Jackie Robinson. Most involving are scenes of boxing champ Mohammed Ali, who risked fame and fortune to speak out against war and racism, and clips of ostracized athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos whose black power salute at the 1968 Olympics shocked the world and sent a statement. This thought-provoking documentary is sure to jog memories and spark debate. — Booklist

What Teachers Are Saying

Christopher Nemec 2018 NCSS (Event Photo) | Zinn Education Project

I’ve used Dave Zirin’s Not Just a Game documentary in both U.S. history and sociology classes. I use it in conjunction with The People’s History of Sports, The People Speak, etc. Zirin’s materials are a great resource.

Highly recommended!

—Christopher Nemec
History and sociology Teacher, Elgin, Illinois

4 comments on “Not Just a Game: Power, Politics & American Sports

  1. Gene Woods on

    The lesson that resonates with my students the most is Not Just a Game: Power, Politics & American Sports film and the Fists of Freedom: An Olympic Story Not Taught in School piece to drive home the importance of social justice and social activism. In order get my students to “buy” in to my course I start the year with examining current social justice issues and then I end the year with Not Just a Game. As a culminating piece it has done wonders to bring all of my students into the fold since it taps into the sports and all of our members of society.

    Two years ago, at the end of the school year I had my students complete a survey about the course and I have them write me a little message about what they learned from the course. Well let the goosebumps rise because one of the students who was the quietest student all year stood up and read from a mini-poster that she created for me. It read and she read to the class, “Real men and real women do not need permission to raise their fists.” -Maria Christina Cipran

    —Gene Woods, high school social studies teacher, Bayonne, NJ

  2. Michael Cheesbro on

    Not Just a Game is a useful classroom tool, as it brings to light many political and social issues and situations that surround the world of sports. As an educator, teaching history through the lens of sports, I examine not only the sporting events and athletes but the political and social hysteria and hype that surround them. Not Just a Game brings many of my chosen topics to light and gives students a visual understanding. The learning experience in my classroom took off to a new level when I combined Not Just a Game with the book, A People’s History of Sports in the United States: 250 Years of Politics, Protest, People, and Play. I urge other educators looking to expose their students to such topics to check out these two tools! — Michael Cheesbro, Social Studies Teacher, Hillsboro, Ohio

  3. Julian Hipkins on

    Not Just a Game gives an excellent description of how politics and sports often overlap. For my students in particular, it made them question why pro athletes today do not participate more openly in the political arena. As an educator, it focused on key figures in the 20th century that directly relate to content that I cover in class. This allows me to use the lens of sports to teach about certain events in regards to the history of the United States. – Julian Hipkins, III, 11 grade U.S. history teacher, Washington, D.C.

  4. T.S. Grant on

    Not Just a Game is perfect for a teaching resource. I used this video with my graduate students and with my high school students. Both audiences valued the overall lesson and theme — empowerment. There is no way to watch this film and not feel like rooting for those in sport history’s margins. Excellent resource! ~ T.S. Grant, Educator, Author, Prince George’s County, Maryland

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