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Politics And Play: America's Rebel Athletes

Book Tour is a Web feature and podcast. Each week, we present leading authors of fiction and nonfiction as they read from and discuss their work.

Not being much of a sports fan myself, I never gave much thought to the importance of the brawny arts in the sociopolitical sphere. Nerdy weaklings like me — and even nerdy athletes — might find A People's History of Sports in the United States something of a revelation.

Sure, anyone who pays the slightest bit of attention to the Olympics is somewhat sensitive to the intersection of sports and the body politic. But author David Zirin unpacks the history of the labor movement and civil rights though sports with authority, humor and exactly the sort of lefty zestfulness you could anticipate from the title.

Like Howard Zinn's seminal progressive tome, A People's History of the United States, Zirin's book presents an alternative view of America's past, beginning with lacrosse-playing Native Americans and the role of sports in slavery.

Obviously, the most fodder comes from the protest movements of the 1950s and '60s, but readers will also learn about black ballplayers who helped pave the way for Jackie Robinson and the Counter Olympics, held before African-American athletes were allowed to represent their country. A number of prominent sports figures are sternly taken to task, including Don Imus, Michael Jordan and a certain former baseball commissioner from Texas.

"This sprawling, insightful and contrarian book is worth reading," noted Time magazine, "for its portrayal of the rebel athletes to whom it is dedicated, and to whom we are all indebted."

This reading of A People's History of Sports in the United States took place in November 2007 at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C.

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Neda Ulaby
Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.