Every aspect of our lives, whether directly or indirectly, is political. To pretend otherwise is to either be involved in a critical delusion or to have a limited understanding of the term. We tend to view politics strictly in terms of governmental affairs, or disputes involving our two major political parties. But a more expansive definition sees politics as the ideological battles that govern the ways in which we interact with one another. This plays out in arenas we don’t think of as explicitly political: relationships, sex, religion, film, television, and, much to the dismay of some, sports.
While there are fans who would try to argue that the world of sports is and should remain separate from the world of politics, the two have and will continue to be inextricably linked. Major political issues of our time, from racial integration to gay rights/representation, have played out in professional sports leagues, while labor and compensation practices are an annual debate (especially at the collegiate level). Questions of public financing for privately owned stadiums directly impact taxpayers, and the increased scrutiny of players off-field behavior reflect intense debates about some of our most vexing issues, including drug use/addiction and domestic violence. All of this is present before we even get to the question of athletes as activists.
That landmine was exploded last year when then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick opted out of standing for the playing of the national anthem which precedes each sporting event in the U.S. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick said in defense of his action, prompting condemnation from those who viewed his refusal to stand as disrespectful to the flag and the military service members who have served under it. Despite this, his form of protest was taken up by several other NFL players, some WNBA teams, and other athletes hoping to draw attention to racist police killings and continued racial inequality in America. A year later, Kaepernick is no longer in the league, but his protest was carried on by enough of his colleagues to catch the attention of President Donald Trump.
“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he’s fired. He’s fired!’” the president said before a rally in Huntsville, Alabama.
But that the NFL has become the primary site for this ideological rift comes as no surprise. Football is the American sport in a way no other major sport can claim. Baseball is the great American pastime, with an emphasis on past. Basketball has grown into a global sport, and its associations with blackness here in the states prevent it from universal acceptance. Soccer still has not truly caught on, while hockey will always belong to our neighbors to the north. Football is pure Americana. And with that tag comes all of the hypocrisy, bigotry, and inequality that also define America. If the two are going to be synonymous, then each criticism that is levied against the country as a whole will also find a home in the league that acts as its athletic representative.
It goes beyond the question of the flag. Football is an inherently violent sport that seems to relish in that violence, despite growing evidence of the long-term harm such violence causes to the brains of its players. The league has paid lip service to more safety and protection, but little has been done to care for its current or former employees. It may not be a one-to-one comparison, but this does bring to mind the failure of America to reckon with its gun violence problem, or to account for any violence it inflicts overseas.
And while activists continue to organize daily to get the American justice system to take seriously the epidemic of violence against women, the NFL fails daily to mete out in adequate form of punishment to its players for the number of abuses many of them have been alleged to commit.
Add to this an on-the-field critique of the way players themselves are described according to racist stereotypes. White players are often fetishized for their “blue collar roots” or “blue collar work ethic,” while black players, who make up a majority of the league, find that their only virtuosic qualities are those associated with their athleticism. The league struggled for a long time with accusations of racism at the quarterback position, the most celebrated position in the sport and the one most defined by its cerebral characteristics, and even as more black players have found success at the position this has again been attributed to their athletic ability, rather than their intelligence.
But the NFL has also draped its league in a form of militaristic patriotism that readily invites criticism. From 2011 to 2014, the U.S. Department of Defense spent $5.4 million in contracts with 14 NFL teams for “on-field flag ceremonies and tributes to welcome home veterans,” according to ESPN.com. The league hands out an annual “Salute to Service” award “to acknowledge the exceptional efforts by members of the NFL community to honor and support U.S. service members, veterans and their families,” according to its website. This entangling of football and the military has been one of the more effective propaganda tools in modern memory, providing the government with a readymade audience for a message of “supporting the troops” even when that support has meant a reluctance to critique military engagement in overseas conflicts.
In short, the NFL, by way of embracing all the iconography of America, has also invited the pointed backlash to that iconography. What they may have wanted was a patriotic sense of unity around ideas of liberty and freedom, but the symbols of America mean different things to different people based on their experience. For Kaepernick, the stated meaning of the flag and the anthem were not being upheld by the reality of police violence. For others, it could be the NFL’s pinkwashing efforts during Breast Cancer Awareness month while the league fails to acknowledge that Domestic Violence Awareness month happens at the exact same time.
Whether the anthem protests continue or fade, or even hold the same meaning anymore, so long as the NFL traffics in the superficiality of Americana, they will also continue to be a prime target for the most righteous critiques of what it all means.