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.