Sunday, May 27, 2018

The Mirror: Football, Race, and Nationalism


The US national anthem is a racist barroom ballad, celebrating militarism and slave-catchers. Which is appropriate, because that's who we are as a (White) nation, and those racialized Others, especially African Americans, are mere signifiers for us White folk, interpreted to demonstrate two things at once: White normativity and Black deviance to define the boundaries of that norm. All our most cherished social, economic, and political norms are White as can be, because they were all developed in milieux of unquestioned (by White people) White supremacy, conscious White supremacy, whiteness being the core cultural organizing principle of the American polity. Whiteness is a sin, our original sin, because the invention of whiteness was a rationalization for the bloodthirsty development of capitalism in the Atlantic states, which devoured brown and “black” bodies by the millions . . . and whiteness devours them still.

American football began as White nationalism and White imperial militarism.

By the end of the nineteenth century, football, a new game promoted in the schools and military academies and modeled on war, was vigorously embraced by those who bewailed the crisis of masculinity in urban Western culture. Theodore Roosevelt (an arch-racist) was an avid supporter of football in universities; he and his masculinity-obsessed contemporaries saw universities as training grounds for the master race. In a letter to a famous football coach, Walter Camp of Yale University, Theodore Roosevelt wrote,

The man on the farm and in the workshop here, as in other countries, is apt to get enough physical work; but we were tending steadily in America to produce in our leisure and sedentary classes a type of man not much above the Bengalee baboo, and from this the athletic spirit has saved us. Of all games I personally like football best, and I would rather see my boys play it than see them play any other. I have no patience with the people who declaim against it because it necessitates rough play and occasional injuries. The rough play, if confined within manly and honorable limits, is an advantage.

In 1910, when Black boxer Jack Johnson stunningly defeated the undefeated White champion, James Jeffries, Roosevelt wrote to the magazine Outlook that prizefighting should be banned. This boxing victory did not fit the racial narrative of Roosevelt or of most White Americans at the time.

Football was a rendition of rugby, a British White man-sport that imperial ideologues in the United States credited for the ability of the British to seize and hold an empire. Football coaches were used as military advisors to develop physical training programs; and the Army-Navy game between West Point and Annapolis was promoted as a nationwide spectacle. While the first Army-Navy game was played on a roped-off field at West Point in 1890, by 1908 it was attended by thirty thousand at Philadelphia’s Franklin Field and heavily hyped in the New York Times.

The game, drenched in military metaphors, was also a business opportunity:

Because football seemed to reflect the aspirations of modern business, which was the greatest beneficiary of imperial expansion, it supported the imperial destiny. In so far as the fostering of the expanding professional and administrative middle class was concerned, American football provided strict rules for the Ivy League players compared with the ill-defined organization of traditional rugby. In this way, the organization of football came to resemble the newly emerging vision of scientific management of business. (Perelman and Portillo, “Football, Eugenics, and Imperial Destiny.”)

The legacy of this military-sports-business model can be seen today in the crossover between books on management that cite military leadership and successful sports coaching.

Football resulted in an alarming number of injuries and deaths, conjuring the wrath of a few public women and fellow male critics of both sports and militarism; but Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, an ardent militarist, made his case before the graduating class of Harvard in 1896, saying, “Injuries incurred on the playing field are part of the price which the English-speaking race has paid for being world conquerors.”

The racial integration of football didn’t happen at once. In fact, Black players have participated in the sport professionally since Charlie Follis played for the Shelby Steamfitters in 1902. But Black players were limited by quotas, attacked, ridiculed, and kept out of the supposedly “brainier” positions, like quarterback, into the 1970s, and there were very few Black coaches . . . today they number 11 percent in college ball, with four out of every ten players being Black; and in the NFL, white coaches, offensive coordinators, and general managers are still overwhelmingly white, even though 68 percent of NFL players are African American. Only five of 32 quarterbacks were listed last year, and only one had ever been played as a starter by 2016. So White fans can still love their fastest Negroes the same way they love their fastest horse, knowing football intellection (I know) is still the province of the master race.

And football is sexist as hell, a whole nuther editorial. It promotes sexism, celebrates sexism, and sells the shit out of sexism, so there’s that, too. Cheescake cheer squads, sexist humor during ads, macho bluster, rape, you name it; it’s there.

But one player queered the pitch, as they said back in the day. Colin Kaepernick, a mixed-race player (face it, if you can’t “pass,” you’re wearing the Black brand), raised by an adoptive White couple in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, a place so White you could go snow blind, started as a baseball player, then exploded into the limelight playing Nevada football in 2007-8 as one of the best QBs of all time. Drafted into pro ball in 2011 by San Francisco. By 2016, however, Kaepernick, apparently convinced by Ferguson and the depressingly, maddeningly, enragingly long list of other now iconic locations where cops gun down unarmed people, including kids, who are branded with blackness, that he could not sit by any longer. So he did this little thing. He sat out the American national anthem—a kind of collective loyalty oath to the White Nation taken by players and audiences alike.

It was one small protest against cops, mostly White cops, but cops (and vigilantes), killing Black folk in America, and getting away with it.

So let’s back up, especially fellow White people, and think through some of the contradictions here. Because it’s different for Whites and Blacks in America, and we are reluctant to admit why.

Why . . . would Black people participate in a sport with such White imperial roots, celebrate “their” success in it, when it is racist, militaristic, and rooted in White supremacy from the first? Why . . . would Black players, who make millions sometimes, then risk the perqs by protesting by “taking the knee”? Why . . . won’t Black players and Black people—who have attained some class privilege in the US, at long last—just learn to be as “color-blind” and “post-racist” as nice white liberals? Why . . . choose the NFL, of all places, as the site to protest racist cops and a racist criminal justice system? Why can’t we separate the struggle against white power from patriarchy? Why? Why? Why?

These are, of course, questions that White people ask, because we can perch upon the lofty peaks of our own racialized privilege, and our White educations, and see the world as a unified, abstracted, morally intelligible whole. Especially if we remain ignorant of what Black people, from W.E.B. DuBois to Patricia Hill Collins have been pointing out since the nineteenth century. Black people cannot survive, or even find a way to exist, in a White society, the hegemony of which is sustained by branding the Black body as the boundary, the definition of deviance, or conversely, the exotic, the transgressive, the bearer of some primitive wisdom, the background in our hallucinations of White Saviorhood. Black people cannot afford our high altitude binocular vision; because they are hunted.

Black people have to look both ways at once, to the world of Black people where there is common experience and where pockets of survival have been organized, however unevenly, and to the world of White people, where there is danger and opportunity, however contradictorily tangled . . . the structures that dictate the limits of lives. White people cannot possibly know this dual consciousness. We can only vaguely comprehend the endurance required to live this duality every goddam day, from birth to death. We can only, and with great difficulty and effort, begin to perceive what it is like, and that it is a wonder Black people will even talk to us in our cluelessness . . . or that if and when Black people let their guards down around us, it is pure grace, and nothing we deserve.

White parents don’t tell White children how to keep their hands visible on the wheel during a traffic stop; or bear the terrible knowledge that White men with guns actually seek out opportunities to kill Black people as probative of White masculinity. Our White children do not leave our sight each day in this miasma of familial fear.

White liberal “journalists” actually tried to co-interview bell hooks and Ice-T once, with the clear intention of getting hooks to confront Ice-T about sexist lyrics in his songs. Ice-T and bell hooks, however, both well-schooled in these paternalistic tactics, called this out together and refused to take the bait, leaving a wake of White disappointment. This was only clear-cut from those lofty White peaks of abstraction; and they both knew that what distinguishes the White liberal above all else is the penchant for telling other people what to do in order to make the world over in their own image. Celebrate diversity celebrates ourselves celebrating diversity . . . that anodyne, neutralized abstraction that is our own covert version of All Lives Matter.

People under attack resist how they can from where they are, the way they can.

Why? Why do they have to wear their hats that way? Why do they wear their pants that way? Why do they use that profanity? Why do they play that music so loud? Why won’t they walk, talk, write, sing, dress, worship, and dance like us . . . why, why, why . . . (because we are what they aspire to, no? the norm? the pinnacle?) Why can’t they all be the Cosbys? (oops, and yes, the politics of respectability is one of those contradictions that exist apart from White world) And if they don’t, well then, we can appropriate what is theirs, make it ours, and render it safely neutral. White people’s greatest weapon is enclosure. And White saviors are about White saviors.

You won’t hear it from them, so maybe you’ll hear it from me. I’m right here in the middle of this privilege pool with you. Get the fuck over yourselves.

Colin Kaepernick did what he could with what he had where he could, and he has probably sacrificed a great deal. Then more Black players joined, and some Black fans (with precious few White allies), and rather than confront the fact that this little gesture of resistance was about the fact that even after this protest, almost 400 more black people have been killed by cops, White people made it about their White flag and their White Nation, because you will accept your inclusion on our terms, or we will destroy you. If you hold up the mirror to us, we will break it, then we will come for you.

To hell with that flag and to hell with that nation, but that’s not what Kaepernick and the rest were on about. They were holding the mirror up, the mirror of dead Black bodies that we buried under the White hallucination of providence and progress we built on those bodies, and the bodies of countless other Others.

What White America hates most about this is that it went viral. If forced us to have the conversation in the Big Public, which is why there is such a cacophony of counter-protest trying to drown that conversation out.

And now, with 53 percent of fans (according to one poll) opposing the Kneel, the NFL has decided to fine players for refusing to stand for the anthem that includes “the home of the free” buried in among the lyrics about killing runaway slaves. This may be the NFL’s Bull Connor moment. It won’t play out the way White America wants. This won’t go back in that hallucinatory box. Time will tell, but football—with all its contradictions, like boxing for Ali—has become an insurgency zone. The lines are drawn, and getting clearer each day.

And it can’t be dismissed by saying, as even I have, “Well, I never watch football anyway.”

2 comments:

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  2. It's worth noting as well that this was all taking place in the sport that is THE bastion of white, conservative malehood in the United States. A study from a couple of years ago showed that the fanbase of the NFL was 83% white, 64% male, and that fans were 21% more likely to be Republicans than Democrats. It's probably the group that most needs to hear the message but without a doubt the one most likely to react to it negatively.

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