America’s romantic relationship with football is both well-chronicled and widely respected.
Football Sunday bears much of the same tribalism and devotion one finds in church, in large part because football has evolved into a sort of American religion in its own right; it, too, boasts tenets, swaths of fanatic disciples, an unspoken code of ethics and an emphasis on personal sacrifice. And, onto the sport, we project all of our aphorisms about America: our interpretations of toughness, manhood and power.
When Colin Kaepernick began his silent protest against racist policing in August 2016, his sin was interrupting our dreamy exercise in national aggrandizement. His actions were an affront to the thoughtless fandom and nationalism that had characterized football games prior. And many apathetic to the cause of black life took exception to being reminded of their complicity in oppression, particularly at an event they’d been assured would speak to the supremacy of their country and its values.
Football is hypnotic in this way.
Its intimate violence lends to simple metaphors concerning battle, heroism, and the strength of our nation.
Consider, for example, that with each play, every athlete lays claim to the patch of grass before them, and all in their way as they fight to secure it are to be vanquished. They nobly clash bodies continually with the intent of determining a victor.
In many ways, this is a vital American notion: that we all stand to enjoy the spoils of success, but we must first give in wholly to our hunger for supremacy at all costs. It is a deeply capitalistic idea and one that, although contextualized in football, fits neatly with our interpretations of America as a meritocracy in which the best man prevails.
But Kaepernick’s free agency, and the acrimony levied against him as he awaits an offer, contradicts this and reifies a truth almost too embarrassingly obvious to note: The National Football League is neither moral nor meritocratic. And while the sport itself relies heavily upon the perceived nobility of even-footed battle and the value of skill over all else, the federation sanctioning the sport operates with a different compass.
If playing football well were the only criterion for playing in the NFL, Kaepernick would be signed to a team. Objectively, he performed about as well as any quarterback would in his circumstance. He returned from injury in 2015 to throw for 16 touchdowns and only four interceptions in 2016 on an awful team.
As Bleacher Report’s Mike Freeman reported, this is no oversight. Of Kaepernick, one NFL general manager said:
“[T]he rest (roughly 70 percent of NFL GMs) genuinely hate him and can’t stand what he did [kneeling for the national anthem]. They want nothing to do with him. They think showing no interest is a form of punishment. I think some teams also want to use Kaepernick as a cautionary tale to stop other players in the future from doing what he did.”
With this, the NFL and its exclusive cohort of wealthy, white male owners seem eager to quell any sort of social activism practiced by its players, a great many of whom are black. (It is noteworthy, also, that a black person has never majority-owned an NFL team in the league’s history.) In so doing, the league is acting in accordance with longstanding, oppressive, American tradition by silencing black voices seeking refuge from oppression. And the coordinated ostracism of Kaepernick betrays a familiar, frustrating plight to many black people in the United States.
Criticisms levied against him have always been thinly veiled criticisms of black people: That we lack patriotism; that we sow harmful division; that we’re professionally mediocre; that we ought to bankroll our own freedom ― and, ultimately, that we’re undeserving of employment and opportunity.
“Criticisms levied against him have always been thinly veiled criticisms of black people."”
In all, the negative response to Kaepernick’s protest has not been unique. The process by which a significant portion of the population came to despise him has been fairly standard, considering assertions of black humanity are often met with angst at every turn.
Dr. Harry Edwards, activist and sports sociologist, spoke of this before the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport in 2016.
“As Black athletes became more openly activist and outspoken relative to issues of race and racism, the mainstream media and the sports establishment became more critical and caustic in condemning them,” he explained.
These reactions certainly were not, and are not, reserved for esteemed athletes. They are, still, employed to smother dissent of all sorts. Kaepernick’s silent protest, for example, was met with a litany of evasive retorts:
There were those who asked what he was doing to aid communities of color, as though the burden for black liberation rested solely upon his shoulders.
He offered $1 million of his salary to ailing communities of color.
There were those who suggested he’d sowed disunity among his team.
His fellow 49ers teammates gifted him the most prestigious team award the organization had to offer.
The sitting president of the United States boasted he’d scared NFL organizations out of signing Kaepernick.
Kaepernick donated $50,000 to Meals on Wheels after the president proposed cutting the program’s federal funding.
It remains possible that Kaepernick will never play a down of professional football again, and if this is so, his career arc will have been tragically familiar — a most prominent display of black plight inflicted by wealthy white male fragility and self-consciousness. But his sacrifices will not have been for naught.
He will have exposed the National Football League as a classic ruse, a delusion of American meritocracy bearing all of its nation’s warts.