Last month when NFL owners approved a new rule requiring players to stand for the national anthem, many activists on the left cried game over. (Activists on the right cried boycott last fall when the protests continued for a second season.) If owners regulate their players’ behavior—in the name of regulating their love of country—it’s time for the populace to tune out. In the words of Chris Long, who played with the Philadelphia Eagles’ Super Bowl winning team in the 2017 season, “This is not patriotism… These owners don’t love America more than the players demonstrating and taking real action to improve it.”
With this declaration from the NFL owners, the ball is in the spectators’ court. Should we stop watching football in 2018? Should these regulations become the straw that broke the camel’s back? After lukewarm responses to domestic violence, after minimizing the risk of brain injury, how many bitter pills will we keep swallowing?
Just before the 2017 Super Bowl, in a column titled “In Defense of Football,” I wrote, “This critique of sports… is important. But in the divisive culture of current U.S. politics and the polarized church, I am convinced we do not spend enough time watching sports together.”
Can I still defend football?
The Demise of Politically Mixed Space
In that column, I tried to make a distinction (arguably, a semantic one) between defending football and defending football spectatorship. I believe football—the sport, the league, the system of power—is indefensible. Watching the NFL is like watching Game of Thrones: we make a promise to suspend our values when we turn on the TV.
It’s a game that, no matter the ethic and integrity of individual players, is fueled by hypermasculine showmanship with women strategically placed on the sidelines in objectifying roles. When the players groomed for aggression become physically violent toward female partners and children, the league shrugs it off and reinforces the idea that upholding the game is more important than upholding prosocial relationships.
It’s a league that preys upon economically vulnerable young men (particularly black and brown men), urging them to make their bodies sites of entertainment and exploitation in exchange for power, money, and respect. Just as military recruitment targets young men without access to college, football recruiters make college access dependent on men’s willingness to exploit their bodies. In many cases, the only difference between college students who become strippers and college students who become football players is gender. Both use the tools of an exploitative system that objectifies their value in order to make personal gains—a handful of them achieve their goal, while many of them lose out along the way. (To clarify: I am not calling football players sex workers; I’m calling strippers entertainers. Think about it.)
In my previous column, my defense of football was a defense of secondary effects: stomaching the game benefits us in other ways. It brings together a diverse array of political views, bonds strangers to each other, solidifies our home and identity. I wrote, “Many times as a pastor, a conversation about football… has been an entry point to a relationship.”
In January 2107, through Donald Trump’s inauguration and its protests, through the wrestling with who America really is and how divided America really is, football held potential as a mediating force. It was a medium with broad appeal that could defuse collective anxiety.
But of course with Donald Trump, there is no mediating force—if you’re not for the ego, you’re against the ego. It’s telling that Trump’s response to the national anthem protests was that players who aren’t willing to stand for the anthem ought to be fired or worse. In Trump’s world, affirmation for his being is the final and singular criteria for workplace success.
To paraphrase the old internet adage, This is why we can’t have morally ambiguous things.
An Argument over Power, not Patriotism
In silencing protests, NFL owners have voted for the white supremacy and police brutality Colin Kaepernick protested. (It’s telling that while only 30% of NFL players are white, 97% of NFL owners are white) Equally troubling, they’ve bowed to the belief that democracy is not elastic enough to hold protest in tension with entertainment. They’ve aligned themselves with the belief that politically mixed space in America is unacceptable. In doing so, the owners chose loyalty to capital and brand, even if that brand loyalty to the anthem and the concussions for which it stands will be the demise of its earning potential in the long run.
As one article observed, the NFL has become our “bread and circuses,” and the owners are dedicated to keeping it that way. (“Bread and circuses” is a reference to the cheap food and entertainment Roman elites gave to the masses in order to obtain their vote, an interesting metaphor for multiple reasons.)
Even so, we can’t fault the masses for wanting bread and circuses. Entertainment and release are human desires that keeps our lives in balance. Instead, in several scandal-ridden years, NFL leadership has revealed their hand: they will repackage the entertainment any time it begins to threaten their power.
Now fans have the choice to keep loving their flawed, oppressive, identify-defining institution or to walk away from a hopeless, unredeemable institution corrupted by capital.
A Fan’s Dilemma: What Game are We Playing?
This is not the first time many of us faced this choice. As a pastor in a polarized denomination that (at times) refuses to tolerate politically mixed space, I’ve watched many Christians choose: to keep loving the flawed institution or walk away. In the church’s case, those who stay loving the broken thing have the power to transform it. I’m less optimistic that that will be true in the NFL.
However, when the NFL is already committed to using football as a tool of social control (especially of black and brown men’s bodies), withdrawal from the system may not be the most effective strategy. It’s possible that it will. But in the long run, withdrawal may read more as a capitulation to or resignation from a system that will continue exploiting economically disadvantaged men.
Our interaction with football is a metaphor for our interaction with all of America’s exploitative, profit-driven policies.
And just like white supremacy or capitalism, if you’re a football fan, particularly a football fan interested in aligning your lifestyle with your values, there’s no easy answer. Do you stay engaged in the dialogue but play according to these new rules? Do you stay for this season knowing that you’ll get kicked out, but wanting to leave with as much noise as possible, like Kaepernick? Do you calculate the hours you’d spend watching football and instead devote that time to visiting another place where men of color are disproportionately represented—a local prison?
For fans who stay watching, there are ways to disrupt the narratives of hypermasculinity, white supremacy, and unquestioned patriotism. Retweet the criticism of African-American players, especially Kaepernick’s rationale for the protest. Get a group of 10 or 20 people to go to an NFL game. Be in your seats early, be enthusiastic—and sit when the anthem plays. If you watch at home with friends (particularly friends of a different political persuasion)—wear a hat. Keep it on during the anthem. Insist on taking up uncomfortable space.
Particularly for Anabaptist Christians who resist war and pledge allegiance to God over and against country, there is space to stay engaged in football, even if it is likely to end poorly. There is space to turn the conversation back toward police brutality and systemic racism. There is space to insist on dialogue and protest—and acknowledge that we are asking men make millions of dollars giving themselves brain damage so that we can find some common ground with Uncle Jack on Thanksgiving. And there is space to pull out of the game entirely and refuse to play by Roger Goodell’s rules, although it will take more than that to disentangle ourselves from white supremacy.
Activism is rarely clear-cut, especially when it moves into a newly polarized arena. Perhaps the best thing we can do is talk to each other about which decision has the most integrity in this moment—and keep checking in to make sure those actions continue to align with our hopes for the future.