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American Sports: the Stories We Tell Ourselves About Ourselves

Photo by Alan Kotok | CC BY 2.0

To borrow a quote from Mike Sliwa, our narrative is “the story we tell ourselves about ourselves.” We twist, bend, and distort history to the narrative we want to hear. We do this to help us create a “feel good bubble”. Facts and reality be damned. It’s what writers, thinkers, and podcasters we follow try to burst with their analysis of what’s happened in the past and what’s going to happen in the future.

It’s the war we are fighting with politics, but do we realize these exact things are happening in the world of sports? We should realize this. American sports are used as a springboard to promote our American exceptionalism.

The exceptionalism phase is most evident when the winners of Major League Baseball (MLB) and the National Basketball Association (NBA) are declared “World Champions” as evidenced here and here. Even though these MLB and NBA champions never go on to play the champions in other professional baseball and basketball leagues in Asia, Europe, South America, or the Caribbean.

Sports parallel as microcosms of what our country is enacting on its citizens and on the world at large. There’s a professional league here in America that is taking the lessons of Corporate Capitalism and in enacting these practices on their athletes. After all the owners are oligarchs and cut their oligarchic chops in the larger Corporate Capitalism world so of course they know how to exploit their athletes to exhaustion and distort their actions to further enriching themselves. They do this while propagandizing Americans to believe their power is the very fabric of our lives we cannot imagine our lives without. Just like what society is doing to us on a grand scale.

We will dive into this later, but first let’s lay out a way a sporting event has been “exceptionalized”.

The 1980 Winter Olympics

We also know this as “the miracle on ice”. Some call this “miracle” the greatest moment in the history of sports. Sports Illustrated named it the greatest sports moment in the 20th century.

So what is this miracle you ask? The Soviet Union had a professional hockey team that was easily the best in the world. They had won the gold medal in the 1964, 1968, 1972, and 1976 Olympics. They only lost one Olympic game during that time span which truly speaks to how dominate they were.

The U.S. fielded a 20 man roster of college amateurs who never played a professional hockey game in their lives, yet in the 1980 Olympics the U.S. pulled off the unthinkable, beat the Soviet Union, and went on to win the gold medal.

Indeed, this was quite the upset. This was also the perfect opportunity to advance the American exceptionalism narrative full steam because in American history this was more than just a game since the Cold War was in full swing.

None of this was made more evident than in the HBO 2002 documentary Do You Believe In Miracles? The Story Of The 1980 U.S. Hockey Team. The opening line to the documentary sets the grandiose exceptionalism stage of propaganda in which Capitalism equals Freedom. As the documentary begins you hear 1980 U.S. Hockey Team Captain, Michael Eruzione utter:

“It was more than just a game. It was ‘us’ against ‘them’. It was Freedom versus Communism.”

This “Freedom” we were going out to the battlefield for vis-à-vis the hockey rink wasn’t so kind to Americans in the decade before. The stock market lost 40 percent in value in 18 months, unemployment reached into the double digits, interests rates rose 20 percent, Nixon was impeached, Vietnam was lost, and a hostage crisis in Iran was in full play.

The HBO documentary tells us American’s self-esteem was at an all time low and they needed to feel good about themselves because let’s face it we are a nation full of, as Abby Martin calls it, empire babies”.

But despite all of this America was still the world’s superpower operating a global empire. It was a global empire still willing to covertly overthrow foreign governments, think Chile 1973.

So it was this game in 1980, the U.S. versus the Soviet Union, where “a sliver of the Cold War played out on a sheet of ice.” In the minds of historians the U.S. victory meant the U.S. won the Cold War. To them the game encapsulated everything the Cold War was about.

The documentary also got several chances to dehumanize the Russian players by calling them “robots” that “never smiled”. They showed at the victory party outside of the White House a person dressing up a doll in a Russian hockey uniform with noose hanging around their neck.

The documentary was made to springboard us into an American exceptionalism mindset as our hearts would swell with patriotic pride but instead it demonstrated how exceptionally out of touch, violent, and spoiled Americans can be. This is why we must put full context around American sporting events because it forces in our history and culture stories we tell ourselves about ourselves that just aren’t true or are taken completely out of context. We do this because we need to feel good about ourselves as 80 percent of humanity lives on less than 10 dollars a day. This is the “Freedom” that was on the battle field in the hockey rink in 1980 versus the Russians. This is also how out of touch this documentary is and how out of touch some Americans are with history and other conditions people face throughout the world thanks to this Capitalist system. Oh I am sorry I mean system of “Freedom”.

If wins and loses in sports are what measures your self-esteem, let’s face it you are an “empire baby”.

The National Football (NFL) Is America, America is the NFL

Repeat after me, “the NFL is America, America is the NFL. America is Capitalism, Capitalism is America. Capitalism is the NFL, the NFL is Capitalism.” Let that phrase sink in for a moment.

This phrase comes to life when you realize it was not until 2009 NFL players came out to stand for the National Anthem. These players came out to stand to associate patriotism with the NFL.

It’s not a coincidence from 2011 to 2014 almost $5.4 million taxpayer dollars were paid out to 14 NFL teams to put on “patriotic salutes” to our military. The NFL even has a Salute To Service campaign which culminates every November to honor the military because per the NFL “honoring the military is part of the fabric of the NFL.” And let me tell you nothing screams salutations more than buying a $200.00 Nike NFL Salute To Service Bomber Jacket on Remember what I said, “the NFL is America, America is the NFL. America is Capitalism, Capitalism is America. Capitalism is the NFL, the NFL is Capitalism.”

Recently leaked audio was obtained by The New York Times from a October 2017 meeting between NFL owners and players about President Trump berating NFL players for kneeling during the National Anthem. During this meeting players confront the owners on why Colin Kaepernick was not on an NFL roster. Robert Kraft wasn’t afraid to tell the truth to the players and you wouldn’t expect anything else from a league that conflates the National Anthem with the military. Here’s the excerpt:

The New England Patriots owner Robert K. Kraft pointed to another “elephant in the room.”

“This kneeling,” he said.

“The problem we have is, we have a president who will use that as fodder to do his mission that I don’t feel is in the best interests of America,” said Kraft, who is a longtime supporter of Mr. Trump’s. “It’s divisive and it’s horrible.”

And then the smoking gun about what was really at the forefront of the owner’s minds about players kneeling for the anthem. This really crystallizes why “the NFL is America, America is the NFL. America is Capitalism, Capitalism is America. Capitalism is the NFL, the NFL is Capitalism.” The article goes on to state:

“The owners kept returning to one bottom-line issue: Large numbers of fans and sponsors had become angry about the protests. Boycotts had been threatened and jerseys burned and — most worrisome — TV ratings were declining.”

Players (current and former), league executives, and analysts will tell you the NFL really stands for Not For Long. They say this with a gleam in their eye. And that’s because the NFL is a violent sport that extorts many of its players to exhaustion, like America is a violent capitalist empire which is a main driver in exploiting the living planet to exhaustion.

The average NFL career is 3.3 years. The game is violent and roster spots are so limited (53 per team). But even a short term career can have long term consequences.

The constant hitting a player goes through, throughout their football NFL can leave many players with a condition called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (C.T.E.). Per the Concussion Foundation, C.T.E. is:

“A degenerative brain disease found in athletes, military veterans, and others with a history of repetitive brain trauma. In CTE, a protein called Tau forms clumps that slowly spread throughout the brain, killing brain cells. CTE has been seen in people as young as 17, but symptoms do not generally begin appearing until years after the onset of head impacts.

Early symptoms of CTE usually appear in a patient’s late 20s or 30s, and affect a patient’s mood and behavior. Some common changes seen include impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and paranoia.

As the disease progresses, some patients may experience problems with thinking and memory, including memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, and eventually progressive dementia. Cognitive symptoms tend to appear later than mood and behavioral symptoms, and generally first appear in a patient’s 40s or 50s. Patients may exhibit one or both symptom clusters. In some cases, symptoms worsen with time (even if the patient suffers no additional head impacts). In other cases, symptoms may be stable for years before worsening.”

Who are these men being exploited until brain exhaustion? 70 percent of NFL players are black, while the zero NFL owners are black. Does this formula sound familiar perhaps? Does it sound a lot like Capitalism or the “Freedom” the U.S. is trying to spread to certain parts of the world?

Many people look at America as Socialism for the uber rich and Capitalism for everyone else. Guess what? The NFL is no different. The NFL maintained tax exempt status until 2015. This is despite the NFL going from 4.28 billion dollars of revenue in 2001 to 11.09 billion dollars in 2014. 

Then you have to look at the NFL’s concept of revenue sharing as a whole. Each NFL team receives an equal share of the leagues national revenue. The league’s national revenue comes from television deals, sponsorships, licensing, and memorabilia sales. In other words, it doesn’t matter how much your team generates individually towards the league’s national revenue because it gets distributed equally to all 32 teams. And as you can see the NFL is one lucrative business so who says paying everyone an even wage will cause laziness?

So you may ask yourself what is the point of pointing all of this out? Well, the point is Americans are more in touch with sports than they are with history and politics. Sports has been a great distraction for Americans to create their own feel good narratives about themselves and their country. It’s dug us deep into the illusion of fantasy while avoiding our hellish reality.

We on the left say we want to build mass movements that appeal to wide spectrums of people. We must dare to venture into the spectrum of sports. If we can speak the language of sports maybe we can get others to speak the language of leftist politics.

The sports narrative can be a feel good narrative full of misconceptions, delusions, lies, and exploitation like we have seen in the way the 1980 “miracle on ice” narrative is constructed.

In the NFL, the majority of athletes being exploited are black players from poor communities. These players know the consequences to playing football can lead to lifelong health effects including eventually death, but they choose to face these consequences in order to survive and get ahead even if it’s just a temporary fix to a deadly long term outcome.

It sounds familiar doesn’t it? Living in a world where many of us choose or are forced to face the consequences of Capitalism for a short term temporary fix to a long term outcome of the death of the living planet.

The NFL players, literally, beat their heads together to get paid while many of us, figuratively, beat our heads together on trying to figure out how we can wake people up to the harsh realities that lay ahead.

So when you hear someone speak the language of sport by using the “miracle on ice” speak the language of sport back with them, but then finish it with the narrative of the “miracle of life” because that miracle is rapidly vanishing, regardless of what story we want to tell ourselves about ourselves.

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