"Say my name, fool!"

"Say my name, fool!"

What’s My Name, Fool?, a haymaker of a book by Dave Zirin, presents the struggles of athletes that intersected with civil and women’s rights movements.
Zirin illuminates little-known acts of resistance, such as professional athletes forming unions, and reclaims greats like Muhammad Ali and Jackie Robinson. Zirin also gives props to his predecessor, Lester “Red” Rodney, a sportswriter for the Communist Daily Worker newspaper, who used his column as a bully pulpit for the racial integration of baseball while writers for the corporate dailies followed the status quo and ignored the immense talent among players in the Negro Leagues.
While it is hard to imagine professional baseball players as general laborers, it was common for them to work in the off-season until the late 1960s. Players in every pro sports league have had to form unions to get their slice of the pie from money-hungry owners. For every sanitized multimillionaire like A-Rod and Air Jordan, there’s a shunned player like former St. Louis Cardinals All-Star Curt Flood.

Flood sacrificed his career in 1970 when he refused to accept being traded. He lost his court challenge to baseball’s personnel rules, but opened the way for players to accept superior offers from other teams. Still, there are thousands of minor-league players who make less than a grand per month, and collegiate basketball stars who bring in millions for their schools without getting paid – and the schools cry foul when players leave early for the NBA.

The book also covers pioneering female athletes who pushed the limits and fought sexism along the way. Seventies pro tennis star Billie Jean King served as the president of the tennis players’ union, and in 1973, 50 million television viewers watched her smoke male chauvinist Bobby Riggs in straight sets during the historic “Battle of the Sexes” match. Riggs, 55 at the time and a former tennis champion, had boasted that “any half-decent male player could defeat even the best female players.”

Away from the headlines of the professional leagues are millions of young women who are playing sports in record numbers through funding provisions in Title IX. In 1972 when the law passed, one in 27 high-school girls played on a sports team; today, one in three participate.

Zirin finishes with an awkward defense of surly slugger Barry Bonds and stories of basketball players resisting imperialism. Zirin is right that steroids can’t substitute for hitting ability or “there would be a potential All-Star in every Gold’s Gym.” However, Bonds admitted to unknowingly using a cream containing ‘roids once. In light of the Rafael Palmiero scandal, Bond’s assertions raise doubt. Thankfully, Zirin leaves us with the uplifting stories of NBA star Etan Thomas, who’s spoken out against the death penalty and the Iraq war; and Manhattanville College women’s basketball standout Toni Smith. Smith turned her back on the flag during the national anthem before each game to protest the war. She stated, “If they don’t want politics in sports, then they need to take the national anthem out, because that is inherently political.”

The Ali/Clay Shuffle by Steven Wishnia

The title What’s My Name, Fool? comes from Muhammad Ali’s 1965 heavyweight-championship bout with Floyd Patterson. Ali, born Cassius Clay – a cocky, loudmouthed young man who’d predict his opponents’ defeats in rhyme – had won the title in 1964 from Sonny Liston, who was like a ‘60s version of Mike Tyson: a ghetto thug with a devastating punch and trouble controlling his rage outside the ring. The next morning, the new champion announced that he was a Black Muslim, and he soon changed his name to Muhammad Ali. The reaction wasn’t quite as if he’d proclaimed his allegiance to al-Qaeda, but it was close. “Cassius Clay is a slave name,” Ali explained.

Patterson, who’d been dethroned by Liston in 1962, cast his challenge to Ali as a “crusade to reclaim the title from the Black Muslims.” Like almost all of the sports media, he insisted on calling Ali “Cassius Clay.” Ali won a 12th-round TKO, punctuating his punches with “What’s my name, fool?” Ernie Terrell, who also riled Ali by calling him “Clay” before their 1967 title bout, got similar treatment.

Ali was drafted into the Army less than three months after the Terrell fight. He refused to serve and was banned from boxing, at the peak of his career. “I’m not going 10,000 miles to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters,” he said, also putting his objections in rhyme as “On the war in Viet Nam, I sing this song/I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.” He returned to boxing in 1970, and regained the title when he beat George Foreman in 1974.
—Steven Wishnia