Football Has Always Been a Battleground in the Culture War

The NFL has become increasingly central to how America perceives itself, which means that sport and politics can never be divorced.

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Let the legend tell it, and America didn’t truly integrate until Bear Bryant told it to. In a dominant career, perhaps Bryant’s most prominent feat as a coach was his endeavor to add black players to the University of Alabama Crimson Tide football team—an endeavor that pitted him squarely against the notorious segregationist, Alabama Governor George Wallace. Bama and the vaunted Southeastern Conference to which it belonged were some of the last refuges of Jim Crow in the country, until Bryant scheduled a 1970 game against the integrated University of Southern California. The humiliation of the subsequent loss, as the story goes, would open one of the last closed doors in the South and in the country.

Of course, that version of the story is heavily fictionalized. The USC game was neither the first game Bryant’s team played against an integrated opponent, nor did the game actually spark integration at Bama or end segregation in the sport as a whole, let alone the country. But the episode has served as a founding myth for the phenomenon of modern football, a game that now extends beyond sports. Ever since, football has grown as a central institution in American life; on its face a truly multi-ethnic undertaking, one where common ground can be found between the lines and politics can be forsaken at least for a few hours. That facade has been revealed as a fiction; both in the protests of Colin Kaepernick and teams around the league, and in the increasingly vehement response from people like President Donald Trump.

Since integration, one hidden rule has bound the sport. Football would become America’s game, but at a price. Anyone would be welcomed onto the playing field—and in short order there would be predominantly black teams—but “politics” would not be allowed. With the ascendancy of the NFL and its move to embrace black players, that bargain became a Sunday truce of its own.

As sports media, anchored and nourished by the mushrooming profit margins of football, itself ballooned into a self-contained ecosystem, the bargain also expanded. Sports became almost an alternate universe where a person could escape the troubling “politics” on display in a changing world. Martin Luther King Jr. once told Meet the Press that “the most segregated hour of Christian America is 11 o’clock on Sunday morning.” But with the advent of professional football, at 1 o’clock, America could pretend it was utopia. That fiction reflected the larger fantasy built and maintained in the post-civil-rights-movement United States that racial strife was a thing of the past, and that continuing to advance the work of those killed in the name of equality risked upsetting a precarious unity.

While football and football media rose in stature as American institutions, other pillars were collapsing. According to Gallup polls, citizens’ faith in Congress, the presidency, and government has eroded to the point where distrust is the default. Nobody trusts schools anymore. American bureaucracy has earned a bad name in every place from New York City to the smallest towns, and the great collective projects that built thousands of miles of highways and moved entire rivers seem somehow less possible. Groups like the Boy Scouts have gone from reverence as great makers of men to curious and quaint pieces of old Americana at best. Attachment to shared institutions and spaces has been severed—curiously, mostly among white people—and in its void, suicides, depression, an opioid crisis, and a powerful rage have taken root. And, perhaps to the highest alarm of those who profess that the country was founded on “Judeo-Christian values,” organized religion has been in retreat.

The fears of those alarmists have always been overblown, and football is part of the reason why. New York Times journalist Roy Reed wrote of a 1969 football Saturday in Birmingham that: “Football has probably replaced church-going as the number one social function in the South. And it’s more than just the favorite sport. It is now a religio-social past-time, a psychic device for the release of tensions and a vehicle for doing business.” Reed’s observation was correct, and football has supplanted religion even well beyond the South now, but the replacement has been seamless because football’s a lot like church. As a civic religion, football has married Max Weber’s protestantische Ethik, American capitalism, the worship of great men, and the individual narratives of sacrifice and superhuman feats. While the stories of Lazarus’s revival or the healing of lepers may be on the outs, there are now Music City Miracles and Lambeau Leaps to compensate.

Football is the way Americanness is performed now. It’s Boy Scouts; it’s Girl Scouts; it’s small talk, radio banter, community, lineage, and family. But the mass performance of football as civic religion has given the lie to the supposed bargain upon which that faith is built. The bargain is predicated on the values of the faith posing as neutral anti-politics, rather than as stances that themselves also divide people. Football—especially the glossy, packaged form of the NFL—is supposed to be apolitical, but the beer ads, fighter jets, giant flag displays, rigid policing of sexuality and gender roles, tolerance of violence off the field, and conspicuous absence of people of color in ownership and executive ranks are echoes of pieces of the status quo being challenged today. They represent the norms of society. But, in the expansive definition of “politics” that encompasses activism and radicalism, norms are the ur-politics, the primary ways in which people are organized and self-governed.

Thus why the protest of former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick—a small action, all things considered—has had such widespread effects. Last August, when Kaepernick began sitting and then kneeling during the national anthem in protest of police brutality against people of color, he said that “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 was initially shredded for breaking the cardinal rule: He’d brought politics into sport. But his protest was merely a refusal to engage in a ritual. How could the negation be political if the original activity was not?

Kaepernick’s apostasy spread. Like heretics before him, the quarterback faced an informal ban from the sport for his demonstration. If only that were the end of it. President Trump, a man whose success relies on a perhaps preternatural ability to find and inflame the grievances of a certain cohort of white Americans, quickly seized on the opportunity. Last August while on the campaign trail, he told Kaepernick to “find a new country” after his protest went viral. Even after Trump won the presidency, he returned to football often as red meat during rallies, bragging that his disparagement had been the cause of Kaepernick’s joblessness. And in a now-infamous moment, at an Alabama rally last week, Trump alluded to the protests of Kaepernick and his supporters in the league, saying that owners should “get that son of a bitch off the field right now” when players protest during the anthem.

As Trump is wont to do, his treatment of the situation quickly made the subtle unsubtle. The apolitical facade of football was revealed fully as a sham by Trump’s very involvement. And the NFL, as it is wont to do, responded by trying to reinforce its trademarked brand of unity while minimizing politics. In one of the most remarkable and bizarre NFL game days in memory, last Sunday teams across the league chose a patchwork of competing strategies ranging from kneeling en masse or locking arms. The Pittsburgh Steelers mostly chose to remain in the tunnel during the anthem. The Dallas Cowboys kneeled before the anthem, but stood for the song (they were booed anyway). The Carolina Panthers conspicuously did nothing. Teams in both the professional and amateur games have taken to locking arms in solidarity, and look like they will continue to do so for the near future.

But, in solidarity with whom? The net effect of the protests across the league, done in the full embrace of the pageantry that Kaepernick’s protest seems to reject, was to reassure fans that it was both possible to love an unchanged NFL and care about the racial issues Kaepernick brought to the game. Even that rather safe message was blunted by the way that the NFL and its partners contorted themselves to coddle those offended by the protests, including Cowboys owner Jerry Jones’s close consultation with Trump after the fact and DirecTV’s offer of refunds to put-off fans. Trump’s comments this week on Fox and Friends about NFL owners being “afraid of their players” made the racial animus of the debate even clearer, and made certain to drag the controversy into another week. While the NFL will ostensibly continue to defy him, the real message, as always, is that the league is the American institution, and that nothing can divide it.

That messaging window has shifted a few football fields away from the original intent of the protest. A common refrain that has developed within the league in defense of Kaepernick is that his protest was not a rejection of the NFL or the patriotism wrapped up in Sunday pageantry. The argument goes that it is somehow possible to be flag-waving patriot who consumes whole everything the NFL produces and still agree with Kaepernick’s argument. But, while allowing for Kaepernick’s own potential evolution on the subject—it’s certainly possible that he’s softened his initial stance on the flag or patriotism themselves being problems—that argument seems a bit more than specious.

Kaepernick’s initial protest was such a bombshell because it was by nature a critique of how the American civic religion is performed. The anthem in NFL games is less a rendition of a song and more a set of rites that have sprawled into the realm of the absurd. Today, billowing 100-yard-long flags, military color guards, fighter jets, stealth bombers, paratroopers, and police units make up the “America” pregame portion of even the most mundane contests. While many people expressed alarm earlier this year at the brazen militarism of Trump musing out loud about holding military parades on American streets for holidays, few fathomed that weekly football games already emulate the function of military parades, showcasing the kind of firepower that the country’s military uses to vaporize homes and flatten cities. Add to that the fact that many of those exercises are directly subsidized by funds from the Department of Defense, and the deeper layers of Kaepernick’s protest come into view.

If, as King said in his 1967 Riverside speech against the Vietnam War, racism, materialism, and militarism are “giant triplets” that reinforce and rebuild one another, it’s clear that they all play a role in the policy brutality at the core of Kaepernick’s original complaint. Policing has rapidly militarized, and the societal deference shown to the military is mirrored in the deference given to police, where it often manifests as impunity for officers who abuse their authority. Existing racial inequalities and racial biases create the self-perpetuating nature of police brutality, and police have often acted as engines of capital, enforcing local corrupt money machines like those in Ferguson that not only violate the civil rights of people of color, but lend to further poverty and inequality. These all in turn destroy black lives. And those values are all, in turn, peddled with every snap of the NFL.

The original act of a refusal to stand for an anthem was a direct challenge to those values, and also a direct challenge to the very existence of the league and its place in American civics. It and sister protests were about what every protest is about—power—and who gets to wield that power. And, while comparisons of football and war are perhaps over-determined, in responding to that challenge, the NFL revealed itself to be a shade of America’s most enduring war, the one that cleaves brother from brother and threatens the foundations of power.

The NFL’s response will probably win the day. The league is a juggernaut, and it will do everything it can to erase the revelation of its political nature, and get back to the version of reality where, to quote New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, “there is no greater unifier in this country than sports, and unfortunately, nothing more divisive than sports.” But, just under the surface, the truth is that the gridiron is one of the main arenas where the fight over injustice and American identity is waged, and that fight won’t be ending any time soon.