Pledging Allegiance to the United Disgrace of Football
It’s going to take a while for people to people to understand that the paradigm of American football, like that of traditional education, is something that needs to be changed. As Amber Ruffin summed it up so brilliantly in her commentary on Late Night with Seth Meyers last night, “We’re the only ones dumb enough to spend our Sundays wearing tights and giving each other brain damage.”
But Ruffin’s routine wasn’t necessarily about football. It was about Ditka’s assertion that:
There’s been no oppression in the last 100 years that I know of. Now maybe I’m not watching as carefully as other people.
As Ruffin went on to note, given Ditka’s tenure in the NFL (He played for 12 seasons and coached for 10):
How can you work with so many black people and not know them?
The routine goes on to brilliantly skewer punishments made against black players exercising their rights to free speech:
Mike Ditka believes that all players should stand for the national anthem, and I’m sure they will as soon as the anthem stands for all
Respect the Game?
If we take a moment to seriously deconstruct Ditka’s comments, if only in the interest of working towards resolution, we should look at something else he said. And this is representative of much of the argument we are hearing now. From yesterday’s Los Angeles Times:
Is this the stage for this? If you want to protest, whatever you want to protest, you’ve got a right to do that. But I think you’re a professional athlete, you have an obligation to the game. I think you have to respect the game, that’s what I think is the most important thing.
Ditka seems to be making an argument for free speech. But it loses steam, bookended as it is by ignoring oppression past and present and weighing the importance of the game over social justice.
There is no logic that connects standing up, placing one’s hand over one’s heart, and singing with respect for the game of football. There are, however, policy recommendations, which state that players should stand during the anthem. This came about as a means of showing respect for the country during war time and following 9/11, not out of respect for the game itself.
Rashoman in the Final Quarter
Looking back on his life as a player, a coach, and a commentator, does Mike Ditka even believe what he is now saying? How can someone who has lived through the 1960s, during which time he played for the Chicago Bears and the Philadelphia Eagles, not have heard and seen what was going on in this country?
How can he not have seen what has been affecting his players, what has been hurting the game he so respects? How can he not remember?
Did he not hear about Charlottesville, as Ruffin wonders?
In Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film “Rashomon,” a man is found dead, and the audience is provided with several different versions of the murder, as told to one of the characters by a priest, a woodcutter, and through a medium, a ghost. The stories are told in flashbacks that portray the crime’s original participants, and they differ greatly. Unlike other murder mysteries, each participant claims to have committed the crime, and we never find out who the murderer is.
Reflecting on the film, Roger Ebert wrote:
It was the first use of flashbacks that disagreed about the action they were flashing back to. It ended with three self-confessed killers and no solution.
Since 1950 the story device of "Rashomon" has been borrowed repeatedly . . . in the way it shows us flashbacks that do not agree with any objective reality. Because we see the events in flashbacks, we assume they reflect truth. But all they reflect is a point of view, sometimes lied about.
I can’t help but wonder whether Ditka and others like him are intentionally lying, or whether their perception has been distorted over time. Has he simply allowed himself to believe and to accept that no one in this country has experienced oppression in the last 100 years?
How about a 70% rule?
It seems some people don’t even know when they are being racist. Take Carson Tucker’s recent conversation with NAACP Atlantic Chapter Vice President Gerald Gibbs, in which Tucker claims:
“So you have a league that is 70 percent African-American. 70 percent of the players are black, as compared to about 13 percent of the population. So clearly, there is no racism in hiring,” said Carlson. “Here you have a guy who signed a contract in 2014 for like $126 million. Collected $39 million of that. Just on the basis of those facts alone, it’s hard to see how Colin Kaepernick, at 29, is a victim of racism. Tell me how he is.”
As D. Watkins calls out in his recent Salon article on this issue:
Carlson doesn’t understand, or won't acknowledge, that team owners only care about winning games. They don’t sign African-American players because they are black, they sign them because they are really fast and can jump out of the gym. Athletics has been one of the only pathways to social mobility, including to college, for black people as a whole in this country, so we take sports seriously, as excelling in athletics can be a matter of life or death for us.
If in the near term, the NFL is unable to fathom the full extent of injustice being done, it should at least recognize the dissatisfaction of its players. It needs to recognize the simple demographics in play. According to Forbes, “Now all but five of the NFL 32 teams are worth at least $2B” and the Dallas Cowboys top the charts with an overall value of $4.8B. If 70% of your players across the league represent a group of people whose struggles against racial injustice have reached such untenable limits that at least one player has sacrificed his career to call this out, you should listen.
Perhaps the NFL needs to first listen with its wallet, and then it can listen with its conscience.
The End of Football as We Know It
I was raised on basketball and, to a lesser extent, baseball, so my upbringing may have something to do with this. As such, perhaps, or maybe because it makes so much sense, I couldn’t agree more with Amber Ruffin when she says “We’re the only ones dumb enough to spend our Sundays wearing tights and giving each other brain damage.”
As with all comedy, there was, of course, a warning there, a lesson for those of us who were listening.
This summer, Boston University released the results of research in which Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease, was found in the brains of 100 of 111 brains of former NFL players donated for the study.
Less than a handful of players have indicated they will leave the game as a result of the study, most notably the Ravens John Urschel, but the full impact on the impact of the findings on both professional and college and high school football remains to be seen. While Urschel thankfully has his MIT studies and eventual career to return to, the lack of further exodus may have something to do with what other options are out there for other players, including the 70% we have been focusing on today.
There’s a lot that would have to change about football to save it from its inevitable demise, but in the meantime, the league really needs to:
· Stop conflating patriotism with saluting the flag at a football game. They are not the same thing.
· Listen to the voices of your 70% demographic. You can make such a difference.
· Continue to ignore 45 when he counsels more violence; he’ll be gone long before you are.
These are changes that can happen within the game. And when you think of your fan base, it can have a great impact on a large segment of society as well.