How We Can Get Partisan Politics Out of Football

Apolitical. Photo: Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Imagine a world where the Environmental Protection Agency paid the NFL millions in taxpayer dollars to honor retired EPA regulators with elaborate pregame rituals. After a congressional oversight committee flagged these expenditures, the payments ceased — but the football league continued to stage tributes to the sacrifices that environmental regulators had made for their countries — tributes that all players and fans were expected to participate in to avoid social stigma.

If a player quietly declined to take part in such a spectacle — say, because he believed that the EPA had been economically strangling coal country, or because of a grievance with some separate part of the American state — would that player be inserting politics into the game of football? Or would he merely be reacting to the politics that the NFL and United States government had already inserted there?

Now, imagine a world where the Department of Defense paid the NFL $5.4 million to perform tributes to veterans between 2012 and 2015; ceased making said payments upon John McCain’s disapproval; and then allowed the NFL to continue the practice voluntarily after that. (Oh, and most of the stadiums where these Pentagon-friendly messages were being delivered were built with taxpayer funds.)

In other words, imagine the world we live in — and then ask yourself, again, whether a player who declined to participate in a ritual tribute to the American military (including one involving the recitation of the national anthem accompanied by militaristic pageantry) would be inserting politics into the situation, or reacting to politics that had already been inserted?

The point of this thought experiment is simple: The NFL was chock-full of “politics” long before Colin Kaepernick decided to use his share of the league’s spotlight to call attention to discriminatory policing.

Those decrying Kaepernick and other NFL players for “bringing politics” into football, then, do not actually object to the politicization of the game, per se. In fact, President Trump and his allies are fiercely defensive of a specific brand of football politics: one that insists that American soldiers never lose their lives in ill-conceived and unjust wars of choice, but only in defense of “our freedoms”; that posits reverence for the armed forces and the symbols of the American state as the unifying foundations of U.S. civil society; that imagines all of our nation’s fallen soldiers as a monolithic group of Über-patriots, all of whom would be more offended by an NFL player’s failure to stand for the national anthem than by the routine, legally sanctioned murder of unarmed African-Americans by the government they gave their lives in defense of; and, finally, that views black professional athletes as beneficiaries of our nation’s wealth, rather than participants helping to create it, and consequently expects said athletes to demonstrate gratitude for the opportunities that (white) America has bestowed upon them.

Not everyone who bemoans the “politicization” of football subscribes to the same slate of ideas and values. Some resent Trump’s “divisiveness” as much as Kaepernick’s and wouldn’t deny that NFL games are already shot through with a kind of politics.

But they’d insist that the crucial difference between traditional pregame politics and the brand that Kaepernick and his followers practice is that the former is unifying while the latter is partisan. Sure, the Defense Department is a government agency. But EPA regulators do not occupy the same place in our culture as veterans do. And, anyway, Kaepernick’s protest was never about the military, no matter how fervently some on the right pretend that it was. The quarterback did not disrespect a specific arm of the American government — he disparaged America, itself. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick declared, after his protest first gained national attention in August 2016.

The problem with this statement isn’t that it offends right-wing sensibilities, the reasonable conservative contends. Rather, the problem is that such statements make it more difficult for our society to maintain a unifying civic culture.

“Healthy democracies have ample room for politics but leave a larger space for civil society and culture that unites more than divides,” the Wall Street Journal editorial board wrote on Monday. “With the politicization of the National Football League and the national anthem, the Divided States of America are exhibiting a very unhealthy level of polarization and mistrust.”

Can progressives honestly disagree with this sentiment? Surely, we can all recognize that the ubiquity of partisan polarization in American society is unhealthy. And given that professional sports is one of last institutions with the power to unify our atomized — and racially and socioeconomically segregated — nation, should we not try to keep partisan politics at the stadium gates? To maintain a healthy civic culture, we need to unite around some shared premises. Is there any less offensive — and more unifying — premise than “America, for all its flaws, is a great nation, preserved through the sacrifices of soldiers, and deserving of our pride”? Is it really unreasonable to ask Kaepernick and his acolytes to avoid denigrating that idea for three hours on Sunday afternoons?

Such sentiments are understandable — and, on their face, reasonable. The Journal is certainly right that our civil society is perilously divided. But the paper, and conservatives who subscribe to its worldview, misidentify the source of those divisions.

The “progressive forces of identity politics” did not cause Colin Kaepernick to question America’s greatness; the lurid spectacle of police officers killing unarmed African-Americans in cell-phone videos — and then escaping all legal accountability for their actions — did.

Perhaps, Kaepernick could have drawn a more sympathetic hearing, in some quarters, if he’d declined to disavow pride in the United States. But as his former teammate, San Francisco 49ers safety Eric Reed, explains in the New York Times, their decision to kneel during the anthem — as opposed to merely remain seated on the bench — was intended as a “respectful gesture.” The point wasn’t to disparage core American values, but to highlight the discrepancy between those values and our nation’s reality — while expressing a tacit faith in our country’s capacity to close this gap. As Reed writes:

I remember thinking our posture was like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy.

It baffles me that our protest is still being misconstrued as disrespectful to the country, flag and military personnel. We chose it because it’s exactly the opposite. It has always been my understanding that the brave men and women who fought and died for our country did so to ensure that we could live in a fair and free society, which includes the right to speak out in protest.

The divisiveness that’s consuming the NFL did not begin with Kaepernick’s rejection of America’s greatness, but with his country’s daily rejection of African-Americans’ civic equality. We live in a country where police routinely violate the civil rights of their constituents in poor black communities; where federal courts give black male convicts sentences that are, on average, 20 percent longer than those doled out to white people convicted of the same crimes; where predominately white school districts are vastly better funded than predominately black ones; and where the median white household owns 86 times more wealth than the median black one — an economic chasm that is rapidly growing.

If we wish to get partisan politics out of sports dominated by black athletes, perhaps we should try to make support for reversing racial inequities a nonpartisan issue. We could inform our fellow citizens that those inequities were born of deliberate, unconstitutional federal policies that were still in force during the second half of the 20th century. We could note that our national prosperity owes as much — if not more — to the sacrifices of slaves as to those of soldiers. We could demand renewed efforts to integrate our public-school systems; target jobs programs and federal aid to the most dispossessed urban and rural parts of our nation; and pass legislation that discourages the use of lethal force by officers of the law. We could work to forge a civic culture that unifies our nation around the premise that, while race is a vile fiction, racism is a vile reality — one that must be confronted, if we are to honor the self-evident truth that all Americans are created equal. In short: We can work to form a more perfect union.

Or, we could force black athletes to perform an uncomplicated pride in the United States, under threat of economic and social sanctions; pretend that those who refuse to comply do so out of indifference to the suffering of disabled veterans, rather than sensitivity to the plight of the communities they were raised in; and found our civic unity on a coerced silence about racial inequality — and a collective guilt about our mass avoidance of military service during a time of (forever) war — and drown out our racial and economic resentments in the jet roar of pregame flyovers, until the American people have lost all confidence in every public institution except for the military.

The latter may make for a “unifying” civic culture. But it wouldn’t be an apolitical one — or, for that matter, the kind you’d expect to see in a “healthy democracy.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article conflated the number of people shot by American police officers each year with the number of unarmed people shot by such officers annually, and thus, dramatically overstated the latter figure.

How We Can Get Partisan Politics Out of Football