Perhaps you heard: President Trump, who has been rightly characterized as a white supremacist, spent last Friday night insulting NFL players, most of whom are African American, calling any who would have the temerity to protest against racism and police brutality a “son of a bitch.” The subsequent reaction was historic: in a league where Colin Kaepernick is still blackballed for exercising his right to protest before games last fall, hundreds of players kneeled, sat, or stayed in the locker room for the playing of the national anthem. Willfully misreading the protests as disrespecting the American military via the anthem, the right wing commentariat was enraged and many, urged on by the aspiring-autocrat-in-chief, vowed to boycott the NFL.
This presented something of a conundrum for those boycotting the league for its patently unfair treatment of Kaepernick, as well as those like me, already boycotting the game because of its debilitating effects on the human brain. By not watching football would I be complicit with the kind of people who cried “both sides” after Charlottesville? Not really: unlike them, I don’t hate the players, but the (violence of the) game. So I didn’t watch, but I did pay attention, via Twitter, as thousands of people shared screen grabs and videos of players stretching, kneeling, linking arms with their “owners,” and raising their fists a la John Carlos and Tommie Smith as boos rained down from the stands. As I reveled in the players’ bravery and solidarity, I also realized something about the terms on which the (presumably almost exclusively white) fans rebuked the athletes’ gestures of protest. It wasn’t just that these fans rejected or were unable to understand the players’ message about the persistence of injustice and racial inequality. They were also misunderstanding the fundamental nature of a sporting contest: rather than a narrative with limitless interpretive possibilities and intricacies, they were considering the game only as an “event,” and one with a specific ritual of immersion that centers on the flag and the anthem.
For those who would prioritize an understanding of sports contests as “events,” the frame of the game is distinct from ordinary life, and the anthem functions as a liminal space—a place between ordinary experience and focus on the game. Writing about Kaepernick for an academic audience, performance studies scholar Brett Carr argued that Kaep’s kneel served to “actively deny… this liminality by recalling issues in normative society that the game of football was to be removed from.” The anthem, in other words, serves as the entry point for many fans’ immersion into football’s violent action and marks it as a space apart—a stuck-to-sports space in which not only is the expression of non-hegemonic politics forbidden, but complexities of all types are muted. For such fans, the comfort of sport is connected to the notion that there is something primal and self-evident about athletic performance. Kaepernick et al. remove that sense of comfort, something all protests are designed to do, disrupting the ritual such that even the fans don’t behave according to the standard of respectfulness they supposedly cherish, booing and yelling as the anthem plays.
Disregarding the fact that sports are always critically rich, complex narratives, no less than a production of Hamilton or a screening of Saving Private Ryan, many fans also pretend there is something more authentic about sports qua “events” because they are unscripted. The performance of the anthem marks football games as real. Performed Live. And, if they are so inclined, fans can leverage this sense of authenticity to reify the conservative social values that are popularly associated with football’s position in American culture. When the players kneel, or otherwise behave in a non-prescriptive way during the anthem, fans aren’t only upset because of perceived disrespect for the American military. They are also angry that the protesting players have disrupted the delimited cultural space in which the unscripted liveness of football’s purportedly meritocratic action is made to buttress nostalgic truisms about individual hard work, level playing fields, and muscular Christian masculinity. These truisms are also just narratives themselves, of course, but connecting them to the purported realness of sport seems to lend them gravity. “Properly” observing the ritualized performance anthem as a signal that you believe in the infallibility of the American military makes sense as an entry point into this context. Crucially, the notion that football reifies those truisms is also inextricable from the violent destruction of black bodies at the behest of white coaches, owners, and fans. This serves to normalize that destruction as right, good, even necessary. It is no coincidence, then that President Trump also complained Friday night that an increase in player-safety related penalty infractions means the NFL is no longer violent enough for his taste. Football’s violence allows fans to figure “gritty” white players as tough and hypermasculine (especially undersized ones like Danny Woodhead or Wes Welker), even as it even as it renders black bodies disposable. This objectification is nothing new: Frederick Douglass, recognized “more and more” as he is by the President, called out the insidiousness of a similar arrangement in Christmastime plantation slave games his 1845 Narrative.
Not all fans decried the protesting players’ actions, of course, both in the stadium and out of it. Online, where the President tweets us closer to annihilation, many celebrated the players, their message, and the fact that the party-agnostic platforms of sports coverage allowed the protestors to reach red state Americans lost to ideologically-oriented media ecosystems. But Twitter is also a place where the narrative basis of sports is always imminent: we like these games because of the stories they let us tell about ourselves, and never is that more apparent than when an in-game development is collaboratively live-tweeted into realms of creative and bizarre narrative that stray far from the field. By breaking the spell of the “event” as procedurally inexorable, by rejecting the “stick to sports” argument in its last frontier—the frame of the game itself—the protesting players not only demanded empathy, they shattered the notion that there could be an inappropriate forum in which to shout their story of urgent human suffering. They rejected the notion that the live action on the field has precedence over their lives outside of it. For all the numerical stats we collect, for all the unscripted physical competition we thrill to, the games are entertaining because they are stories. And in these times of national crisis, no waving flag or a national anthem that’s actually a racist poem set to an English drinking song should supersede the players’ right to tell the story they want to tell.
- As others have done already, it’s worth pointing out that the armed forces are far more diverse, and thus reliant on the labor of men and women more likely to understand and object to inequality, than they are made out to be by their fervent white defenders.↩
- While African American players constituted almost 70% of the league’s players in 2016, just 6 of 32 head coaches were people of color, according to The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. In addition while 2 of 32 team owners are people of color, neither is African American. http://nebula.wsimg.com/1abf21ec51fd8dafbecfc2e0319a6091?AccessKeyId=DAC3A56D8FB782449D2A&disposition=0&alloworigin=1 ↩
- For an extended academic treatment of this phenomenon, I highly recommend Erin Tarver’s recent book, The I in Team: Sports Fandom and the Reproduction of Identity.↩