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Back in 1967-1970, when I actually used to follow the National Football League I never thought the men wearing shoulder pads and jockstraps would be the people doing more to sharpen the racial contradictions in US society than any other organized group. Of course, back then professional athletes were paid considerably less and had barely any say in their working conditions or contractual status. That has all changed thanks to the fact that professional athletes in the United States are not only some of the best-paid employees in the country, they are also among the best organized. Indeed, when the players strike in professional sports, the economy of certain cities stumbles.
When I used to watch Bart Starr, Johnny Unitas and Joe Namath throw the ball back in my earlier years, it seemed most NFL players were white. They were also assumed to be very patriotic and supportive of the US war on Vietnam and in favor of the more conservative side of US politics. Whether or not this was as universal as it seemed to be is hard to say since NFL players were not known for expressing their political views in public. Culturally, NFL players tended toward the conservative side of things, as well. Indeed, when Joe Namath burst on the scene with the New York Jets in 1969, his longish hair angered many NFL fans of my father’s generation and mindset, despite the fact that Broadway Joe’s hair was quite short when compared to some of the manes today’s players’ sport. I still remember my dad telling me in a letter from Danang, Vietnam (where he was stationed) that he hated Namath’s hair and thought my brother and I should have haircuts like the Baltimore Colt’s crew-cut Johnny Unitas. To be fair, I supported the Jets in the Super Bowl they played against the Colts in January 1970 mostly because I hated Johnny Unitas and his haircut.
The National Football League is much more important today. Baseball, which was once the number one sport in the US, seems to have given up that rank to football. I have plenty of opinions about why this is so, but I think most of this popularity can be attributed to a couple things. The first is the NFL’s willingness to do what commercial television networks demand in order to maximize profits and the second is the essentially violent nature of US society. In a monologue titled “Football is War,” George Carlin compared the two sports noting that “football’s a ground acquisition game. You knock the crap out of eleven guys and take their land away from them. Of course, we only do it ten yards at a time. That’s the way we did it with the Indians – we won it little by little. First down in Ohio – Midwest to go!” On the other hand, “in baseball, the object is to go home!”
Because the NFL has the cultural importance it does today, it commands much too much of the nation’s attention. The national championship game, known as the Super Bowl, is probably the biggest “holiday” in the country. It is certainly the day when the television network broadcasting the game makes more money than any other day. The same can be said for many bars, restaurants and grocery stores. In general, this domination of contemporary US culture exists in what can be considered the safe venues of entertainment and such. For the most part, the world of politics existed in a dimension quite separate from the sports world, even when the right wing attempted to use it for its own purposes.
This is no longer the case. Thanks to the work of various sports fans who write (Dave Zirin being the first to come to mind), certain athletes of past and present, and a certain unemployed NFL quarterback named Colin Kaepernick, the NFL is now a center of a political battle not seen in US sports since Muhammad Ali, John Carlos and Tommie Smith. In the now familiar story, Colin Kaepernick decided to kneel during the customary playing of the US national anthem before a football game. He knelt in protest of the ongoing unpunished killing of Black men and boys by police in the United States. His protest spread to other players on other teams. Naturally, the traditionally conservative sports media lambasted the protesters. Furthermore, Kaepernick has been unable to find work in the league since then. Like Muhammad Ali, he is essentially being denied to work in his profession because of his political protest.
The good news is that the protest is spreading. Part of this is due to Donald Trump’s racist attacks on the players involved in the protest, but it is also related to the growing awareness that Trump is using the racist attitudes of many US residents to maintain his hold on power. If there were no protests against the racism that Trump relies on, I believe this nation would be much further down the road to its KKK past then it is. Although the protests by athletes and regular citizens against the unpunished killing of Blacks by police have not stopped the killings, the existence of those protests has made it clear to the world that this country called the United States has not rejected its past of genocide and the trade in human beings. Furthermore, the protests have sharpened the contradiction between the nation our children are told we are and the nation that we truly are. It is up to us to carry this struggle to its fruition.