Tears on the gridiron: Thoughts on football and fragility.
I’ve got love for football. Love for the Denver Broncos. No love for me?
I missed Week 1. I’ll admit it. I know…Season Kick-off…Monday Night Football…My beloved Broncos, against our (not-so-hated) lowly rivals, the San Diego, err, Los Angeles Chargers.
I missed it. Not because I lost power as my city could not dodge Irma’s long reach and potent punch. I missed it because I decided to confront power by taking a small, symbolic action.
I’m taking a stand. I’m sitting out. I’m taking a knee.
To paraphrase the great philosopher, Rick James, “Football is one hell of a drug.”
So before I dive headfirst in the deep-end, I have to let you know:
I missed it. And honestly, I’m still missing it. The hopeful preseason. Perilous playoffs. Testy group texts. All the stories and stats. Dramatic in-game turns of event. My auto-drafted fantasy teams. I was looking forward to all of it.
I miss dressing my son in WR, Demaryius Thomas’ jersey, while I don the Peyton Manning orange, teaching my son to say, “Touchdown Broncos” like a true (Atlanta-born) Denverite.
I miss going into random Atlanta sports bars to bond with the other one or two out-of-market Broncos fans who enjoy being vindicated in close games by improbable victories. Instant camaraderie.
We were real Broncos fans together in “enemy territory.” Real Broncos fans — United in Orange. Real football fans united by the same thread found at the seams of the official game ball.
But are we coming a part at those seams?
In many ways, the NFL is the truly great American sport. It rakes in millions more fans and billions more dollars than its nearest challenger. Its Super Bowl is the most popular TV show in any given year, often breaking its own viewership records.
Huge multi-national sponsors send blank checks to the league office just to buy the affinity of its loyal fans. TV networks engage in bidding wars to emerge with the rights to showcase the only live event that matters in the Fall and Winter: a professional football game.
It’s not just corporate dominance. The NFL has it all. Competition. Violence. Hard work. Themes of good versus evil. Underdog stories. Tales of the American Dream.
Field-length flags. Chilling renditions of the National Anthem. (See: Whitney; Beyoncé.) Gridiron tackles for Turkey Day. Salutes to freedom. Even the US Department of Defense gets in on the fun for the meager price of millions of taxpayer funds.
Fans at every game pledge allegiance to the flag. At every game, they pledge allegiance to Whiteness — not defined as white skin, but as the legal and social power of White Supremacy.
Black players. Earning millions. Celebrated by white people. And I dare pull the infamous “Race Card?!”
You damn right.
Be not deceived. This is a show. A production with feats of excellence from individuals sacrificing their bodies for the good of the team. These world-class athletes who can now ostensibly move on up to their dream lives. They are paid well to excite, entertain, and provide 3 hours of fantasy to millions across the land.
“But,” as Michael Eric Dyson explains in his book Tears We Cannot Stop, “when that fantasy is up, and proper black manhood and womanhood is reclaimed, we know that you revert to your old ways and think of us as not worth the trouble.”
Basically, either, “Get in line, make these millions, and shut the hell up,” or “Get out of this league.” Or even, “Get the hell out of this country.”
There has been so much written and said about the specifics of Colin Kaepernick being blackballed from the NFL. I will not add to or take away from these great voices. I will not debate. (He’s long crossed the threshold of competence. Unfortunately, he’s also crossed the line of tolerance.)
However, I did not arrive at my decision to boycott the NFL based on one individual’s experience with a racist institution in a society powered by Whiteness. There’s a larger point that Kaepernick’s protest raised:
In America, the humanity of the black body is still solely defined by the black body’s utility to society. Nothing more.
For me, Kaepernick’s employment struggles are the symbolic icing on the cake. And I think it’s safe to say that Kaepernick, who’s largely evaded the eyes and ears of the media, appreciates the support but wants the focus on the above issue.
Many Americans (white, black,conservative, liberal, etc.), find it despicable that Kaepernick would dare use this “platform” to bring attention to such a controversial topic.
Football is supposed to be an escape. Somewhere folks can go to simply forget about the burdens of everyday life. Aptly, Dyson reminds these Americans, “One of the greatest perks to being white in America is the capacity to forget at will.”
These Americans say that Colin isn’t patriotic. To them: He’s idiotic. Disrespectful to the country, the flag, the troops, the police, and other plaintiffs.
Yet, in reality, there’s nothing more patriotic or American than righteous protest. (See: Boston Tea Party.) Isn’t this what the troops fight for: liberty and justice for all?
To you, it’s just pig skin. To me, it’s pork. I just don’t need it.
The best friends you’ll ever have will let you know when you’re off track. They’re the ones who will look you in your eyes and tell you, “Stop. Pick yourself up. Dust yourself off. This isn’t who you are.” They will love you enough to hold you accountable. They will help you be the best version of you.
In this country’s brief, yet tumultuous history, the best Americans we’ve ever had are the ones who have given of themselves to remind America who she is supposed to be.
While some people think that dissent is unpatriotic, I would argue that dissent is the highest form of patriotism. In fact, if patriotism means being true to the principles for which your country is supposed to stand, then certainly the right to dissent is one of those principles. And if we’re exercising that right to dissent, it’s a patriotic act. — Howard Zinn, “Dissent in Pursuit of Equality, Life, Liberty, and Happiness”
In Tears, Patriotism is defined as “the beliefs in the best values of one’s country, and the pursuit of the best means to realize those values.”
However, Nationalism is defined as “the belief that no matter what one’s country does-whether racist, homophobic, sexist, xenophobic, or the like — it must be supported and accepted entirely…[Love] it or leave it.”
“It is the nationalists who wrap themselves in a flag loudly and proclaim themselves as patriots.” — Dyson, Tears We Cannot Stop
Dyson and Zinn would agree with me in saying that Kaepernick is the true patriot. A good American. With the grand pageantry of “patriotism” on display at every game, Kaepernick executed a perfectly placed silent knee.
Since the stadium is supposed to be a “safe space,” this may hurt your feelings. Many Americans are quite fragile. But protests have flooded the gridiron because there are few truly American places left. So, tears inundate the AstroTurf, from goal line to goal line, amidst watery-eyed shrieks of “Get off my lawn.”
As a primary student, I learned American ideals and values of freedom, life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, the freedom and challenge to hold democracy and its institutions accountable. But, if we’re honest, there are other unspoken ideals symbolized by the flag, which are hundreds of years older than the flag itself.
If you love America and its ideals, why hate Kaepernick because he’s “protesting the flag?” Is it that Whiteness is inextricably woven in the fabric of the Red, White, and Blue?
Are we all to remain in perpetual deference to the ideological symbols represented by the Stars and Stripes? To the ideals of white privilege, white power, white nationalism, and chiefly, white supremacy.
The idea that there is a cost to challenging Whiteness is nothing new to black folk. It’s why so many of us fear the routine police stop. The fear that if at any moment a challenge to police can cost us: due process, health, freedom, or even our lives. Precisely what Kaep was protesting, and certainly why he’s currently unemployed. A very costly challenge.
Giving up NFL Football is a personal decision. Just realize that if you have chosen to stick with it, that personal decision is draped in privilege. The privilege to choose when change is convenient, which is a privilege protected by Whiteness. Yes. Even if you’re black.
The 2016 NFL season was quite possibly my last. I know I’m only one person, but that’s one less viewer, ticket holder, apparel buyer…one less fan.