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Red sports

December 24, 2009
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This week on his baseball blog Keith Olbermann wrote a moving tribute to Lester Rodney, who passed away this past Sunday.

Who was Lester Rodney? I confess that before Olbermann’s piece I had never heard of the left-wing sportswriter, who in his writings advocated for baseball integration a full decade before Jackie Robinson signed with the Dodgers. As the piece notes, Rodney’s views set him apart from most journalists, the great majority of whom largely steered clear of issues of race, or simply believed in the status quo.

Despite his integral role in putting pressure on the baseball establishment to drop its racial barrier, Rodney remains a relatively obscure figure, a fact which Arnold Rampersand, Jackie Robinson’s biographer, attributes to his Communist Party membership. His employer was the now defunct Daily Worker, one of the few, if not only, publications to openly campaign for the admission of black players into the big leagues.

That the Communist daily contained a sports section — one of consequence, even —  strikes me as a quite strange. As a long-time devotee of sportswriting, I’ve come across just about every variety and subvariety the field has to offer, following the genre from the days when long-narrative SI pieces defined the form to its current state where blogging reigns. I admire many of today’s sports journalists, but for those of us who grew up in the ESPN generation it is difficult to even imagine a writer willing to commit occupational suicide for the sake of a political cause.

The utter paucity of politically conscious sportswriting almost certainly is a reflection of the decline in left-wing media.  Over the past few year’s Dave Zirin has emerged as closest thing to a modern-day Lester. Writing for the Nation, Zirin is alone in his field, tackling subjects that the mainstream sports media do not dare touch. When the first active basketball, baseball or football players comes out of the closet, we’ll be grateful for his voice, and likely wish that there were others more like him.

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