Because everything is so Trumpian these days, there’s less air or space for the only other mass entertainment that promotes tribalism and toxic masculinity while keeping violence in vogue: football.
In the age of The Donald, it’s hard to remember that football was once the nation’s greatest television reality show. Because real people actually got really hurt in real time, you could be sure it wasn’t fake news. Now, football is just another runner-up to President Trump, whose policies actually get people killed.
And yet football is still here, in plain sight, waiting to resume its cultural dominance once Trump is gone.
To avoid any further erosion of its base, it is cosmetically modifying itself at every level with “reforms” focused on the image of increased safety. From small rural high schools to the Fifth Avenue offices of the National Football League (NFL), plans are being generated to protect America’s most popular and prosperous sport from the two things that could destroy it — the players’ mortal fear of having their brains scrambled and the fans’ moral fear of awakening to their complicity in such a process.
The players, mostly black and conditioned to believe football is their best ticket out of modern Jim Crow, have not yet fully awakened. But fans, despite being conditioned to believe that supporting your local team is little short of a civic responsibility, have more options. They are, after all, mostly white and not as likely to need to sacrifice their health for their short-term livelihood. There’s hope that, in the end, those fans will come to understand, for example, that watching the Super Bowl is casting a vote for the values that have helped bring us the show most dangerous to our survival as a civilization, the Trump administration.
As a voter’s guide, here are the six ways in which football groomed us for Trumpball and is still trying to keep us in its grasp:
1. Inflame Racial Divisions: Helping to spread America’s primary disease, racism, is Trump 101, but the NFL got there first. Seventy percent of its players are African-American. At the start of this season, only four head coaches and two general managers of the 32 teams were men of color. Only two owners were not white men: the Jacksonville Jaguars’ Pakistani-American Shahid Khan and the Buffalo Bills’ Korean-American Kim Pegula (a woman).
So, who would have thought that the same year — this one! — would mark not only the 100th anniversary of the NFL but the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans on the soil of what became the United States of America? Somehow, neither milestone has been celebrated all that much this year — and never together. In his indispensable book on race and sports, Forty Million Dollar Slaves, former New York Times columnist William Rhoden maintains that, by cutting off black athletes from their history and communities, the sports industry has managed to control them. “The power relationship that had been established on the plantation,” he wrote, “has not changed even if the circumstances around it have.”
To make sure the NFL owners would stand firm against players kneeling during the national anthem, President Trump called Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones to say, according to a sworn deposition given by Jones and reviewed by the Wall Street Journal, “Tell everybody, you can’t win this one. This one lifts me.”
No wonder that these days, whole teams or many members of them refuse invitations to the White House.
2. Crush Dissent: The CliffsNotes saga of former San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick is pretty straightforward — a star (though not a superstar) refuses to stand for the pre-game national anthem as a protest against racism, particularly of the white-police variety. His act is spun as disrespect to the nation and its flag. Thereafter, no team will hire him because he would be a “distraction.” That was three years ago and, ever since, Kaepernick has kept himself in playing shape, becoming a martyr to some, a loser to others, and one of the genuine heroes of this generation of racial activists. He has collected millions of dollars (and given away more than a million of them) from both a Nike campaign and a settlement with the NFL in return for withdrawing a collusion case he had brought against the league. More recently, a league-sanctioned open workout, hastily organized for him to audition for a new quarterback job, collapsed amid bad intentions and confusion.
Perhaps most interesting is the striking lack of support Kaepernick has received from many of his fellow players. Are they against his demonstration or fearful of antagonizing their owners and endangering their own jobs (which only last, on average, slightly more than three years)? After all, at a 2017 rally, Trump told those same owners (a striking number of them donors of his) that they should respond to protesting players by saying, “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. He’s fired. He’s fired!”
He really didn’t have to tell them. They understood that holding the line against the Kaepernicks of this world means keeping the progressive barbarians at bay, something already baked into the game. The canceling of the Other, of anyone not on the team (so to speak), be they rivals, uncooperative college faculty, or most women who aren’t moms, cheerleaders, or girlfriends who understand that the team comes first, remains the norm.
3. Normalize Brutality: Football was born in brutality. In 1909, the year 26 football players died, former Confederate colonel John Mosby reportedly called the sport a “barbarous amusement” that “develops the brute dormant in man’s nature and puts the player on a level with… a polar bear.” This from a cavalry raider once known as the “Gray Ghost.”
Although the game has since been made safer, it’s always been a contest battled out man-to-man and based on the violent aggrandizement of territory. Attempts to create rules to avoid, say, crippling blocks and tackles have generally been met by howls of anguish from chickenhawk fans who cried out: don’t sissify football.
Particularly in the warfare between offensive and defensive lines, football is a game of domination by bullies. The most notorious of contemporary bullies (and yes, he’s a Trump supporter) is Richie Incognito. As an all-star offensive lineman at Nebraska, he picked fights that probably would have ended his career at most other universities. But he was such a good player that Nebraska sent him to the Menninger Clinic for anger-management counseling. This, however, proved no cure for the six-foot-three-inch, 300-pounder and Incognito eventually was kicked off the team. While some pro teams refused to draft him on the basis of “character” issues, the St. Louis Rams did so in 2005. He played well (and with bad character). He was routinely picked for all-pro teams, while, in 2009, being voted the “dirtiest player in the league.” In 2013, he bullied a fellow 300-pound Dolphin, Jonathan Martin, off the team and eventually out of football.
Not surprisingly, the NFL is as practiced when it comes to reaching out to bad boys as the present administration is. (Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher, one of three SEALs tried for war crimes, whom President Trump intervened repeatedly to protect, has been referred to as the Richie Incognito of the SEALS.) Incognito, who continues to pile up a police record, played this season with the Oakland Raiders while Martin, a Stanford graduate, still struggles with his depression.
4. Sustain Inequality: Recent legislation in California allowing college athletes to share in any profits from the sale of their images has been both hailed and attacked as revolutionary. It’s the beginning of a fair new deal in the saga of the “unpaid professionals” and the end of amateur sports as we knew it. There was always a very good reason for keeping jocks on an unguaranteed dole called “scholarships”: control. But an even better reason was keeping all the profits for the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the colleges, the apparel companies, and the retailers.
The crushing economic inequality in college athletics (especially in football and basketball, the so-called revenue sports) has been justified by the “free” education that “student-athletes” — a term concocted by former NCAA Executive Director Walter Byers — receive, if indeed they go to class and graduate. If indeed they even have time.
The ripping-off of college athletes has been carefully ignored by legislators, universities, and fans. Later in life, Byers would aptly call the NCAA “a nationwide money-laundering scheme,” but this phenomenon runs through all of sports. The 32 NFL teams collect more than $13 billion in revenue annually and protect themselves with elaborate “salary caps,” so that no team can start spending too wildly on players or launch the football equivalent of an arms race. Of course, by the time you turn pro, the least you can make is $495,000 (this year’s rookie minimum) with millions more for first-round draft picks.
As Colonel Mosby pointed out so long ago, the real problem still begins in college. As he put it, “It is notorious that football teams are largely composed of professional mercenaries who are hired to advertise colleges. Gate money is the valuable consideration.”
5. Apply the Lie: In the deadly tradition forged by Big Tobacco and climate deniers, the NFL relentlessly insisted that there was no relation between brain trauma and the game, even as middle-aged former players slipped into early dementia, Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS), and Parkinson’s disease. For years, the league was dismissive and stonewalled on the issue. In all of this, the media and a cult of faux masculinity were accomplices. Those head-banging hits you’ve been wincing at on TV? Just dingers a real man should be able to shake off.
It took a young New York Times reporter, Alan Schwarz, a young pathologist, Bennett Omalu, and the brothers Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru-Wada, with the help of a PBS Frontline documentary, “League of Denial,” to finally get the story out in full. And it would prove a particularly hard sell for fans invested in the game. They generally didn’t want to give up their viewing pleasures, however guilty, and tried to justify them by claiming that the players were well aware of the risks and well-compensated for them, even if the settlements crafted by NFL lawyers have never seemed adequate to the damage done.
As Americans learned that the damage was usually caused by thousands of hits to the head — from pee-wee football through high school and college — youth football participation started to drop. Even successful pros began to say that they wouldn’t allow their sons to play football.
More troubling yet to the NFL have been decisions by stars like Andrew Luck, a 29-year-old quarterback who quit while he could still walk and think.
6. Control the Media: Covering football from high school to the pros can be a walk in the park or a slog through hell, depending on whether the reporter is considered part of the booster squad or a “ripper,” out to score his or her own points in opposition to the team’s brand image. Admittedly, even in this heightened moment for sports journalists, few reporters have been physically attacked by coaches or athletes, although intimidation, micro-aggressions, and attempts at shunning have always been common. Lately, real-time access to key players has been harder to come by and has led to more speculative coverage, which, in turn, often results in adversarial writing, sometimes in defiance of media employers.
Not surprisingly, then, leading a recent “stick to sports” campaign have been football’s media partners, not its players or fans. Anything that seems remotely political, even if posted on private social media platforms, has been subject to being shut down. Jemele Hill, an ESPN star now writing for the Atlantic, may be the most striking example so far of a good journalist ousted in this way, but many have also been lost to devastating lay-offs at ESPN, Deadspin, and other sports sites where real coverage has been giving way to cheaper, uncontroversial puff pieces.
Ultimately, in such a climate, political figures, too, may feel ever more comfortable expressing themselves aggressively to journalists on critical coverage. Here, as David French described it, is a possible harbinger of such a future:
“In 2017, the congressional candidate Greg Gianforte ‘body-slammed’ the Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs after Jacobs tried to ask him questions about health-care policy. It was a cowardly, criminal act. Not long after, Trump praised him. At a campaign rally, the president of the United States said of Gianforte, ‘Any guy that can do a body slam, he’s my kind of — he’s my guy.’”
“My guy,” by the way, went on to win his Montana seat in the House of Representatives.
For those who remain unconvinced that an unqualified vote for football is a vote for Trump, the Jock Culture Department of TomDispatch suggests you follow Richie Incognito to the Menninger Clinic. For those who promise to at least remain open on such subjects, however, we’re prepared to look the other way while you watch the Super Bowl in a SportsWorld made ever more toxic by the racism, sexism, classism, and violence encouraged, or perhaps more accurately, marketed by Donald Trump. And while you’re watching the festivities (and the head-banging to follow), hang on to the possibility that this will be the president’s last Super Bowl as national head coach.