Last week, Richard Spencer, America’s most media-hungry white nationalist, gave a speech at Auburn University, which is best known for producing Tim Cook, of Apple; Octavia Spencer, of this year’s Academy Award nominees; and a whole lot of rabid football fans. Auburn is in Alabama, where college-football Saturdays are considerably holier than churchgoing Sundays, so it was odd when Spencer veered from his usual talking points about the perils of diversity to end his remarks by condemning the university pastime. “If I could wave a magic wand, I would absolutely ban football,” Spencer told the crowd, which, as you might imagine, booed. Spencer said that sports “can be a wonderful thing,” adding that “they are something deeply Western, something that you can read about in Homer,” while neglecting to add that you can also read about them in the Epic of Gilgamesh. Spencer went on to make the reasonable point that sports fans are “covering up some hole in ourselves” by devoting so much of their emotional energy to a team they are not a part of, playing a game that ultimately doesn’t matter; but he said the issue was not a waste of time or resources, but rather that cheering for a sports team put people in a position of “rooting on people that you have no connection to.” Translation: Sports are bad because they make white sports fans interact with, and perhaps even think fondly of, black athletes.
Spencer was once a jock. He played football in high school, and as a graduate student at Duke, he says he used to attend Duke basketball games alongside “my left-wing colleagues, who deconstructed Gender and Race by day and rooted on J.J. Redick by night.” While researching the significance of the Duke University lacrosse case to the American far right, I discovered that it was at Duke that Spencer began to develop his belief that the cause of white nationalism would require the dissolution of college and professional sports. He laid out his thinking in a pair of pieces, one in 2010 titled “White Devils: The Unbearable Whiteness of Duke Basketball,” praising the fact that Duke’s basketball team often had more white players than other top college programs; and a sequel in 2015 called “Where Have All the White Devils Gone?” which documented his disappointment that the number of black players at Duke had since gone up. He believed the Duke teams of yore stood “as a kind of ‘alternative reality’ to the fate of American sports — and to that of the country itself.”
As evidence, Spencer offered an oddly omniscient account of a basketball game against Clemson University, during which it seemed to him that the Clemson supporters “were rooting almost as intensely” as the Duke fans, “though not quite.” Spencer says he suspected the Clemson fans wished they could switch places with him. “Much like nationalism, school spirit and winning can overcome quite a lot, but I doubt the Clemson fans could ever quite identify with their team like Dukies do,” Spencer wrote. “I often wonder whether there isn’t something deeply unhealthy about college students passionately rooting on players with whom they have little in common, and, I’d add, with whom they’d never associate were it not for basketball.”
When I mentioned these articles to Spencer over the phone a few weeks ago, he chuckled, just as he did at Auburn, seemed to briefly forget he’d ever had the idea, but then jumped on the notion. “There’s a profound ambivalence surrounding sports, and so much of that is due to race,” he said. I told Spencer that I had seen too many grown men cry and scream in public over their team’s loss (or win) to take the first half of that statement very seriously, but asked him to explain. He pointed to Colin Kaepernick, the NFL quarterback who took a knee during the national anthem last season. Spencer said the conservative commentators who declared that Kaepernick was being unpatriotic or disrespectful of the military were being insincere, not because their arguments were logically incoherent, but because they were simply too afraid to say what they really meant: that Kaepernick, by being black, and asking Americans to pay attention to an issue important to the African-American community, was “messing with our national identity.”
As a counterpoint he cited the national soccer teams of Europe. Aside from the French side, which Spencer said “has become heavily African,” he argued that there was a greater uniformity of ethnicity among the national teams, which made it easier for fans in those countries to root them on without reservation. “A World Cup team from Germany I don’t think carries any of that ambivalence,” he said, again citing this unseen ambivalence. I pointed out that, in fact, Mesut Özil, a Turkish-German midfielder who was recently named German Soccer Player of the Year, has for years declined to sing the German national anthem before games. Instead, Özil, who is a practicing Muslim, prays in Turkish. Spencer said he hadn’t heard about that.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Spencer’s attack on the Auburn football team and its black players — whom he referred to as “not the greatest exemplars of the African race” — earned the loudest boos of the night, alongside steep competition. If there is minimal comfort to be had in the face of Spencer’s rise to prominence it may be the fact that the world he is advocating for is one that nobody would actually want to live in. Much as Republican voters who railed against Obamacare until they realized it was also known as the Affordable Care Act, most of those who might find it appealing to identify as members of an alternative right will be less inclined to continue doing so when they realize that means they won’t be allowed to root for their favorite football team. Spencer himself seems to know he wouldn’t want that, either. When a Mother Jones reporter told Spencer he had discovered that Spencer has dated multiple Asian-American women, and asked how that fit into his idea of America, Spencer replied, “I would rather you didn’t write about that.”