The separation of sport and state

If someone told you a few months ago that we would be writing about Colin Kaepernick in late August you’d assume we’re discussing what team should take a flyer on the beleaguered quarterback or what options he had to get back into the playing fold. Instead, it’s something more, something infinitely more significant for us as people to consider. Or to shamelessly over react to as the case may be.

I will not spend much time reviewing the cultural atmosphere that serves as a background for Kaepernick’s moral choice. I also won’t necessarily shout out the widespread range of reactions, ranging from cartoonishly ludicrous (burning a player’s jersey, in an act that entirely subverts itself to white-redneck stereotype, so well done on that one) to entirely reasonable (understanding the player’s right to both express himself and have some sort of a guided internal moral compass about racial injustice). The truth is, we’ve spent much time discussing it.

There is a rich history of players using their position of visibility to make a statement. For those with a tragically short memory, here are some notable moments.

  • Muhammad Ali’s famous refusal to enlist during the Vietnam war, not so thinly implying that the real enemy is here at home.
  • The Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics.
  • Carlos Delgado sitting out the national anthem in protest of the Iraq War.
  • Tim Thomas’ white house absence during the Bruins’ visit (Obama administration)
  • LeBron James’ hooded tribute to Trayvon Martin
  • St. Louis Rams “don’t shoot” protest
  • WNBA players wearing “Black Lives Matter” t-shirts
  • LeBron, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony and others taking up the mantle during black lives matter.

That is by no means a comprehensive or conclusive list, it goes on and on and on, but this pattern also highlights a more notable problem in two ways. One, the inherent problem in the NFL and two the inability to separate sport, politics and culture.

Calling for a separation of sports from the political is like calling for the separation of the movie industry from Hollywood. It’s a ridiculous notion for an affair so soaked in faux-patriotism bullshit. We play anthems before every game (any sport), military commercials play at intermissions, soldiers are often honored and eventual victors always get to visit the White House, the pinnacle of America’s political symbolism. And yet, when the players choose to peel back the curtain on something like this, “oh no no no we don’t want any of this political garbage in our sports, we want it pure and uninterrupted.” FOH.

What’s more, asking athletes whose culture we so effectively consume, subvert and reproduce to separate themselves from it is not only selfish, it is downright indecent. To go back to something I wrote a few months ago… We can’t consume the product, be it sport, entertainment or news and then systematically separate ourselves from the very real and very tangible social experiences that are ultimately connected to those things. Why do the people who are such avid fans of a cultural phenomenon work so hard to separate it from the very fabric of social reality it is grounded in? From the social experience that gives rise to this. You can’t pigeonhole race relations to a TV screen or a basketball court as if it’s some sort of socioeconomic vacuum that exists for your personal enjoyment. Remember how your racist uncle still thinks that everyone who’s pigment is slightly off-white is not a full human being and that’s a fucking insane notion? Well, here you sit asking these players to do the same. It’s cool that you’re this funny, athletic personality, but like don’t you dare be a full person beyond that and have actual opinions about actual issues. That’s not cool.

The NFL in itself is a fairly closed and “by the book” organization. Roger Goodell is viewed less as the benevolent overseer and more as the Eye of Sauron making sure nothing topples his dark kingdom. It keeps a tight reign on a variety of its players, often snuffing out any kind of dissent before it is allowed to take root or at least trying to. It took weeks, months even, for them to react to the Ray Rice fiasco and even then, it took a mountain of indisputable evidence to force their hand. Goodell was more than happy to skate by on allegations and allow Rice to play until that option simply wasn’t feasible anymore. In the case of St. Louis Rams, the organization quickly issued an apology to police services while lamely acknowledging their players’ rights to express their freedoms, but that was the whole team.

Kaepernick has caught the windfall in the media and given his already precarious situation on the roster, may end up on the tail end of an unjustified dismissal because… bad for the NFL brand, blah blah blah. When LeBron James wore the “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirt (Comic Sans notwithstanding), President Obama commended him for using a public platform in a non-violent protest, when Kaepernick did it, a player who left his pregnant wife just to show up to the birth of their twins new mistress in tow chastised him for it. What’s more, when an Eagles rookie Myke Tavarres announced he’d join the action, his agent (probably white, probably upper middle class, probably says he has a black friend) “advised” him not to.

That is the problem with the NFL, it is restricting, but it is also calling out for some of it’s bigger stars to make the push. The problem is, some of it’s bigger stars are white and those who are not constantly get juxtaposed to those who are. Say what you say, the NFL quarterback is the most visible position on the field. They get the most dissected and analyzed and they get called for to speak on the team’s performance. It’s the suburban good kid with a “good heart” against the “inner city youth who only know how to do one thing well”. It’s silly and it’s unwarranted, but it is what it is. The NBA is infinitely more progressive under both Stern and Silver, but it also has a leadership mandate. When your top stars take a stand, you can’t exactly threaten them with bench time or suspensions in fear of losing marketing dollars and that’s what the NFL needs.

It needs a flat-out player movement that speaks out against this systemic suppression of player agency and power within the organization, that one that is cool with them dealing irreparable damage to their brain, but takes issue with you taking a seat for 2 minutes. The NFL has consistently proven that the only color that matters is green and while they can safely snuff out someone of Kaepernick’s stature, a fading star with no financial repercussions, losing Cam Newton, Russell Wilson and Von Miller may at least give pause to the commissioner on punishing the players for trying to protect a culture the league has spent many decades shamelessly exploiting.

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