The Boycotter’s Guide To The NFL

Should you or should you not boycott the NFL? Let’s review the cases for and against.

For: if you boycott the NFL, you will be supporting the civil rights protest conducted by Colin Kaepernick–one underway since last year when he began taking a knee during the playing of the American national anthem before NFL games; this protest has resulted in him not finding a single NFL team willing to hire him this season–while simultaneously hiring players with inferior records. (None of those players, obviously, were as ‘uppity’ as Kaepernick was.) You will thus be condemning an organization that has systematically covered up the dangerous work environment that it provides to its employees–google ‘concussion NFL cover up’; which has refused to treat the domestic violence perpetrated by its players as a problem worthy of a serious response–google ‘NFL domestic violence’; and several of whose owners donated a million dollars each to help elect an incompetent white supremacist President of the United States.

Against: if you boycott the NFL, you will be supporting a boycott call sent out by the aforementioned ‘incompetent white supremacist President of the United States’–who would like NFL teams to fire any players who dare to speak up in any shape or form against the systemic racism that so often afflicts their fellow Americans,failing which fans should stay away from the league.

The case for boycotting the NFL is strong regardless of the Trump Intervention. Trump’s boycott call is not directed at those who would find themselves in agreement with the actions of Colin Kaepernick–and all those who have joined him in protesting at NFL games. It is directed, instead, at those who call the players who protest thus ‘spoiled rich ungrateful millionaires.’ (Apparently, earning the wages that are due to you in the particular political economy that regulates your profession means you lose your right to protest; moreover, if rich folks don’t have a right to protest, then how come they have the right to be elected President?) That is, if you are boycotting the NFL, continue to do so. You aren’t the one Trump was talking to in the first place.

The effect of Trump’s decidedly amateurish intervention in this ‘debate’ has been singular: today’s games have been marked by widespread protests, ranging from multiple players taking the knee during the national anthem to entire teams refusing to take the field for the playing of the national anthem to singers of the anthem themselves taking a knee. It has also forced NFL owners to to cease and desist from puckering up and kissing the ample Trump backside to actually speaking up against him. (The odious owner of the much maligned New England Patriots has led the way.) There is much to enjoy in this squabbling spectacle: the protest Trump sought to condemn has only grown as a result, and the NFL’s owners have found themselves backed into a corner where precisely no friends can be found.

Meanwhile, keep your hands off the remote on Sundays, and skip the football pages in the sports section.

Sporting Ability Does Not Correlate With Virtue: The Superbowl Confirmation

It was pretty easy cheering against the New England Patriots yesterday. I’m a New York Giants fan, and the Giants specialize in breaking Patriot hearts, in shattering Patriot dreams–think Superbowl XLII and Superbowl XLVI; the Patriots are a New England team, and New Yorkers dislike all New England teams; the Patriots and their coach, Bill Belichick are notorious benders and tweakers of the rules of the game–think ‘Deflategate‘; the Atlanta Falcons were the underdogs, aiming to bring sporting success to a city that could use some good news–Boston is blase about all its sports championships. And so on. (Bear with me while I make note of these marketing clichés.) And then, this year, there was the political subtext–which wasn’t so sub, after all. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are Trump fans; the former has been used as campaign fodder by Trump himself.

Say no more.

Apparently, we had an unambiguous moral universe set up for us. Good vs. Evil. And Evil triumphed. Moreover, Evil did so thanks to an amazing, unprecedented comeback that ensured its quarterback, coach, and team have good claims–statistical and otherwise–on being anointed one of the greatest of all time. (The Patriots’ win also allowed the obnoxious Richard Spencer‘s crowing on Twitter about how he was cheering for one of the ‘whitest’ teams in the NFL to be fruitfully rewarded.) The arc of this moral universe is long and its local curvature doesn’t seem to indicate that it is bending in the right direction.

Sporting ability does not seem to correlate with virtue–of any sort. This sad fact has often been noted and commented on by sports fans; moral reprobates win championships and prize money galore all the time; good guys often finish last.  Indeed, the playing of sport itself does not seem to make the world a better place. Football, the particular sport under scrutiny here, has done a great deal to suggest that it does not deserve spectatorial attention, indulgence, or tolerance so long as it continues to be an inherently unsafe activity organized and managed in an unsafe fashion. There are, after all, good reasons to believe NFL owners have systematically misrepresented the long-term dangers of the sport and will not allow an open, unbiased investigation into its longstanding concussion and traumatic brain injury problems. (The systematic misrepresentation of masculinity, the glorification of violence, the tolerance of domestic violence by the NFL’s commissioners, its serving as a propaganda arm of the military, are but some of the many other sins that are laid at the NFL’s door. The loud, sexist, drunk, NFL fan is a well-known American archetype–a frat boy in a team cap.)

This is all pretty disappointing stuff but it is also enlightening. We should not expect too much when we look at a sports field; least of all should we expect to find moral or political arguments justified there. The right of a people to nationhood will not, despite many wins for their sports teams, receive confirmation on a sports field; the success of a national ideology will not be confirmed by a win in a World Cup. The good news for the sports fan and the sports marketer is that this warning is not an easy one to take on board; sports fields are symbolic battlegrounds, and they’ll remain that way. At least till we find another domain of human endeavor that lends itself so easily to such easy exploitation by story tellers and myth makers.

David Brooks Should Take A Knee And Stop Writing Stupid Op-Eds

David Brooks wants to “persuade” high school football players who are kneeling during the national anthem to protest systemic racism that what they are doing is “extremely counterproductive.” He does so by identifying this country’s “civic religion,” which is “a fusion of radical hope and radical self-criticism” and “based on a moral premise–that all men are created equal.”  This religion has been “nurtured…by sharing moments of reverence.” Sadly, this religion is now “under assault” from a “globalist mentality” and  “critics like Ta-Nehisi Coates” and a “multicultural mind-set.” Now, unfortunately, Americans are not so patriotic any more and so now, “sitting out the anthem takes place in the context of looming post-nationalism.” As such, when Americans sing the national anthem, “we’re not commenting on the state of America….We’re expressing gratitude for our ancestors and what they left us.” But if we don’t sing the anthem, all hell breaks loose:

We will lose the sense that we’re all in this together. We’ll lose the sense of shared loyalty to ideas bigger and more transcendent than our own short lives. If these common rituals are insulted, other people won’t be motivated to right your injustices because they’ll be less likely to feel that you are part of their story. People will become strangers to one another…You will strengthen Donald Trump’s ethnic nationalism….

Roughly: if you don’t sing the national anthem and show the appropriate respect to a country whose blessings in your case have been decidedly ambiguous, racists like Donald Trump wins. So you see, if you fight racism, racism wins. Cut one head off, another one appears. Why don’t you just give up, shut up, stand up, and sing? You’re playing football, stayin’ healthy; you might go to the NFL and make lots and lots and lots of money like that other ingrate, Colin Kaepernick. You’ll get to participate in sponsored rituals of patriotism in big stadiums. So go ahead and sing that “radical song about a radical place [and its slavery].”

Because Brooks’ column is an advice column, let me dial 1-800-RENT-A-CLUE for him. The only folks instantiating the “civic religion” Brooks speaks of are the high-school football players who, through their public protests, are risking abuse and denigration from patriots, and worse, patronizing advice from painfully clueless, overpaid, incompetent writers. They, and not the hysterical patriots, are the ones actually displaying a “fusion of radical hope and radical self-criticism.” Their actions indicate that they don’t consider this nation a finished product; they consider it a work in the making. By doing so, through their peaceful, non-disruptive protest, they are making the most hopeful statement of all: that political activism can lead to change. Their actions are not complacent and quietist like Brooks; their silent protest is expressive and eloquent. It adds another note to the American symphony, which is an unfinished work. The American ideal is not a coin, which once minted, carries the same value; it is an ongoing notion, one revealed by history, and by action and thought.

The high-school football players are dynamic innovators in this realm of political practice and theory; Brooks represents stagnancy and stasis. America needs more of the former, less of the latter.

Colin Kaepernick Will Not ‘Behave’ And That’s A Damn Good Thing

Colin Kaepernick, quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers will not stand during the playing of the national anthem at NFL games. As he put it, after refusing to stand during the 49ers against the Packers this past weekend:

I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color….To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way….There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.

And he is prepared for the consequences, for after all, his employer, NFL fans and sponsors, and the media could, and almost certainly will, turn on him:

I have to stand up for people that are oppressed….If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right.

There are several interesting aspects to Kaepernick’s stance. First, and perhaps most importantly, there is no ambiguity about his stance. This is not a call to ‘come together,’ to ‘heal,’ to ‘forget and forgive’; this is not a bromide or a platitude to split the difference and maintain a quiescent state of affairs. This is a combative gesture of protest, one designed to be provocative, aimed against a symbol that is all too quickly used as protective cover by insecure patriots. They will soon issue the usual furious canards about how Kaepernick has ‘insulted’ those ‘who have died for the country defending our freedoms.’ Second, in so doing, Kaepernick is not merely taking aim at the police; he is indicting a much larger set of institutions, cultures, and practices. Indeed, by rejecting a classical gesture of respect for a national symbol, Kaepernick is rejecting the claims of the nation upon him, one to whom he feels his allegiance should not be directed as long as it does not fulfill its end of the citizenship bargain.

Athletes taking a political stance are not unknown. Some professional athletes have to be pressured or shamed into doing so; they speak up quickly and retreat, worried that their livelihood as will be jeopardized. The First Amendment will not protect them against their private employers. Others–like Mohammad Ali or Tommie Smith and John Carlos during the 1968 Olympics–made more explicit gestures of protest and paid the price. In the American context, because so many athletes are African-American, they can expect that the responses to their political statements will be infected by a racism and anger and contempt that they know is never too far from the surface of their most dedicated fans. They know they are expected to be ‘good blacks’: do your act, entertain us, and when you are done, leave the stage quietly; do not stick around to torment our conscience or force introspection upon us; we like our athletes compliant and docile; do not remind us of where you came from and what you might identify with; indeed, you have no other identity than that given to you by your contract and your employer.

Colin Kaepernick has just refused compliance with these orders. He deserves our respect and admiration and support.

Redskins and Indians: America Isn’t Done With the Natives Yet

Years ago, on ESPN, I saw a young African-American player on the Washington Redskins‘ roster  interviewed about the periodic controversy over his team’s name.  The interviewer asked, quite straightforwardly,  ‘Do you think the team should change its name?’ The young man, looking worried–perhaps knowing he stood a good chance of offending someone and aware of his own peculiar standing in the debate– replied quickly, ‘If they are offended, then I think we should change the name.’

The ‘they’ in that response are Native Americans, America’s most invisible community. They aren’t extinct–word has it they still exist on reservations–but you wouldn’t know it from the way the Redskins continue to hold on to their moniker. Or the Cleveland Indians their grinning, leering, feathered mascot.  You wouldn’t know it either from the drearily familiar manner in which this debate bogs down every time its embers are raked over: in one corner, those who find these teams’ names and mascots offensive and racist, and in the other, those who shriek ‘political correctness!’ and urge everyone to take the proverbial chill pill. (My posts on this blog should make clear which corner I occupy.)

There is a logic of sorts to the visible, persistent indifference of sports teams–multi-million dollar corporations, each and every one of them. Why should the Washington Redskins or the Cleveland Indians bother? Are there any Native Americans on the boards of the corporations that sponsor them and that might initiate a withdrawal of monies? Are there any Native American Senators or Congressmen who might speak up against them? Heck, do these teams have any Native American fans who might be offended and be able to enlist political and economic support for their complaints? There is no constituency to be offended, no demographic to be consulted.

There is, in short, no commercial imperative to change. There is plenty of incentive not to: the Redskins and the Indians, might, god forbid, look like they had caved; they might look like they weren’t ‘man enough’ to resist the forces of complaint and ‘victimhood.’ Their fans, those who happily buy their tickets and merchandise, and fill their stadiums, all the while emptying their own wallets, certainly don’t care.

It says something about the lack of political visibility, power and reach of the Native American community that this debate persists, that these descriptions still pervade American sporting life. In the extensive catalog of insults directed at that community, these caricatures and derogatory terms are merely the latest entries; the cries of ‘get over it and play the game’ just the latest version of ‘keep your head down, shut up, and keep moving.’ And besides, a community confined to impoverished tracts of land, and battling with poverty, alcoholism, and some of the highest murder and rape rates in the country has much else on its mind.

From displacement to betrayal to humiliation to massacres to insults; America isn’t quite done with its indigenous people. Stick around a while folks, there may be yet another trick up its sleeve.

Baltimore Dispatches – II: Ford vs. Chrysler, Or, Picking Your Favorite Professional Sports Team

Today’s activities in Baltimore feature as centerpiece, attendance at a backyard barbecue structured around a football game. It’s Sunday, it’s fall, football is on, the Baltimore Ravens are playing the Kansas City Chiefs. There will be beer, grilling, and frequent trips to the restroom. Sounds like the kind of thing you’d do in a sports-crazy town on the weekend, one that started on Friday night, for then, Baltimore was in the feverish grip of the Orioles-Ranger playoff to determine the American League wildcard. Tonight, sports fans in Baltimore will execute a masterful segue from devoted following of the National and American Football Conferences to Major League Baseball’s American League Divisional Championships as the Birds take on the Yankees. Baltimore versus Texas! Baltimore versus New York! Er, Baltimore versus Kansas City! The stuff of long-standing, politically significant, emotionally charged historical disputes.

Or not.

Which is a long-winded way of saying I am confronted again with the mystery of how millions of sports fans, here in the US, and all over the world, develop long-standing, passionately defended and articulated, emotionally infused, personal allegiances with large, profit-seeking, corporate entities, an enterprise that should be–but most definitely isn’t–akin to finding someone to cheer for in a Ford vs. Chrysler encounter. (Sorry, bad example; if you walk through the parking lot of a NASCAR event, you will find many who can do just that.) I succumb to the marketing pitch all too easily myself. Somehow, despite all my misgivings about the Barclays Center arena in Brooklyn, despite its gentrifying, traffic-causing, neighborhood-destroying tendencies, I find myself making plans to go watch the Brooklyn Nets, cheap tickets for which will run well north of $50, looking forward eagerly to Knick-humbling, thinking about a Nets shirt and cap. They are, after all, a very cool black. Dodgers-shmodgers. Brooklyn has its ‘own’ team, hooray. Bring on the rest of the world. Or at least, bring on the other boroughs.

Disliking some teams is easy too: I reflexively loathe the Cleveland Indians for their mascot and the Washington Redskins for their name; I dislike the Boston Red Sox because, well, they’re the Red Sox. In the world of professional soccer, I take refuge in easy formulas like disliking English soccer clubs, thus transferring prejudices acquired in the world of cricket to a new domain. It seems all too easy. The Edgar Allan Poe theme of yesterday’s post reminds me that last year, when I asked my sister-in-law if she had adopted Baltimore’s football team as her own, her answer was, ‘Well, of course, how could you not cheer for the only team in the NFL to be named after a literary character?’ Which in turn reminds me an old rejoinder of mine when asked about my NFL allegiances: ‘Both New York teams, the Green Bay Packers, and no one from the NFC East.’ Why the Green Bay Packers? Well, how could anyone not like the NFL’s only non-profit team?

As this little collection of irrationally acquired prejudices shows, there isn’t much sense to it, and there couldn’t really be when easy tribalism is such a prominent motivation. The true wonder of it is how it builds and soars to the heights of quasi-religious fervor, expressed loudly in those gigantic, fueled-by-tax-breaks temples, sports stadiums, which dot the land whose dictator would be called coach.