It’s become a regular feature of National Football League games this season: Players staging protests by “taking a knee” during the playing of the U.S. national anthem before their games.
The protest escalated after President Donald Trump gave an inflammatory speech in Alabama in which he said NFL owners should “fire” any players who did not stand for the national anthem. Trump even instructed Vice-President Mike Pence to walk out of a game on Oct. 8 after players once again knelt during the anthem.
The kneeling protest was started last year by Colin Kaepernick. When asked why he did not stand, Kaepernick said: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of colour…There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
Though several athletes have made gestures in support of Kaepernick, no team signed him for the 2017 season, effectively banning him from the NFL. “It baffles me that our protest is still being misconstrued as disrespectful to the country, flag and military personnel,” said Eric Reid, a safety for the San Francisco 49ers. “We chose it because it’s exactly the opposite.”
Kaepernick and the subsequent protests have caused an uproar. Normally pro athletes are expected to happily play and not comment on matters off the field. The scope of allowable topics for professional athletes include game strategy, training and clichés about wanting to win and do well.
Selling the ‘product’
The main reason owners, athletes and generally the media stay away from mixing politics and sport is that it allows them to sell their product more easily, which in turn brings in more revenue from endorsements, ticket sales and ratings.
In this way, professional high-performance sport conforms to capitalist ideology. Ideologies, of course, are designed to control us. One way capitalist ideology wins in professional sports is by creating spectacles — highly orchestrated representations for fans to watch.
This phenomenon of revenue over authentic substance has been described by several scholars. In the 1960s, influential French philosopher Guy Debord wrote the Society of the Spectacle, in which he noted: people go to “the spectacle” — or in this case, the game — to “fall asleep.”
As Debord explains it, “the spectacle” has a kind of numbing effect. Yes, there is some excitement, some highs and lows, but generally we don’t go to the game to find out more about each other or to discuss social inequalities. We go to the game to get lulled.
While fans are sometimes called upon to donate to charities, they are charities the owners or league has chosen — worthy causes like the recent hurricanes that hit the United States.
But fans are never officially called upon to do anything that would disturb the social status quo, such as donating to a racial justice fund. This despite the fact that more than two-thirds of NFL players are Black. There are no majority Black owners in the NFL and Michael Jordan is the only Black owner in the National Basketball Association.
This is what Debord meant by numbing through the spectacle. The effect of the numbing on NBA, NFL, NHL and MLB fans — and here I am talking about the large majority of fans who are middle class and white — don’t want to be called upon to change, or even to question, our inequalities.
Many pro athletes who are not Black also feel no need to question or counter social injustice. For example, at the same time as the NBA Champion Golden State Warriors declined an invitation to go the White House, and with more than 200 NFL players choosing to kneel during the national anthem, the NHL Champion Pittsburgh Penguins accepted the White House invitation the following day without any apparent consideration to their fellow athletes in the NFL.
Professional athletes entertain, they don’t protest
This is how it’s been as long as these sporting entertainment events, these spectacles, have been around since the early 20th century. There have been exceptions: Interestingly, most athletes who have gone off script have been Black. They include Jim Brown, Althea Gibson, Muhammad Ali, John Carlos and now Colin Kaepernick.
These courageous athletes figured out ways to resist the narrow path laid out for them and instead found spaces to articulate their authentic selves.
Yet the notions of the spectacle — and capitalist ideology — have kept both fans and athletes numb, and our resistance within this is hard to find.
For example, in the run-up to last year’s Super Bowl, reporters asked New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady what he thought about Trump and he said: “I don’t always agree with my friends.” Brady appears to have changed his position somewhat and recently said he disagreed with what Trump said about the national anthem protests, calling it divisive.
For Brady, this is a small act of resistance, though he’s unlikely to say more: He probably doesn’t want to risk going off-script and possibly losing revenue or advertising contracts.
Sportsmen banding together or splintering apart?
In the game, the unity between pro athletes and fans is superficial and exists only for the sake of the game, or the team. This superficial unity is belied by everyday social contradictions and disparities. In the U.S. and Canada, there are profound disparities in the way people are treated based on race in terms of access to services, jobs, health care and opportunities.
From the point of view of the spectacle, or the game, the average sports fans don’t see these contradictions. They are concealed by the distractions of the game itself: The score, the narrative and the subplots. One of the main places this concealment happens is through the playing of the national anthem before games. The anthem is almost like a prayer, and everyone standing for it demonstrates we are aligned for the same purpose — the highest purpose here is the game.
Here is where the main irony lies at the heart of most U.S. professional sports.
Despite the success in this arena, most Black athletes live in worlds where socio-economic contradictions — such as gun violence, police repression and brutality and economic insecurity are the daily realities they must navigate in order to survive. Many Black lives are cut short by stray bullets, police brutality and lack of basic health care.
Almost all Black athletes in North American professional sports are connected to or related to people whose lives are being lost in such a manner on a regular basis. It sometimes seems as though no Black athlete is able to free him or herself from these social contradictions in spite of their financial wealth or fame.
For example, recently NBA superstar LeBron James had his Los Angeles mansion sprayed with racist graffiti on the eve of the 2017 NBA Finals. “Hate in America,” LeBron said, “especially for African-Americans, is living every day. Even though it’s concealed most of the time.”
As a result of these racist contradictions, some athletes, like Kaepernick, feel forced to expose racial inequalities. Within the confines of the spectacle, the main place to do that is the national anthem. Kneeling is an attempt to bring their reality to the game and to disturb the superficial unity.
The “Take a Knee” protesters are calling on fellow athletes, fans, owners and journalists — the majority of whom are white and devoted to the spectacle — to question their desire to be numbed.
Such was the sentiment expressed by white San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich when he said: “People have to be made to feel uncomfortable, and especially white people, because we’re comfortable. Most of us really have no clue what being born white means. You have advantages that are systemically, culturally, psychologically there. And they have been built up and cemented for hundreds of years.”