Football Is Trumpball Lite: Can Kaepernick Save Us?
The Super Bowl is superfluous this year. Who needs a reality show about violence, domination, and sexism, not to mention brain damage, now that we have Trumpball, actual reality that not only authenticates football’s authoritarianism but transforms us from bystanders into victims? Before this game is over, the players may swarm the grandstands and beat the hell out of us.
Pro football actually helped prepare us for the new president’s upset victory by normalizing a basic tenet of jock culture: anyone not on the team is an enemy, the Other. And it’s open season on opponents, the fans of opponents, critics, and women (unless they’re cheerleaders or moms). Trash talking is the lingua franca of this Trumpian moment, bullying the default tactic.
Yet pro football has also provided us with the single most vivid image of current American resistance to racism. Last summer, before a pre-season game, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat during the playing of the national anthem as a symbol of his refusal “to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” As the season progressed, he started going down on his right knee when the anthem began, revealing that he was wearing black socks decorated with pigs in police hats. These, he said, represented “rogue cops that are allowed to hold positions in police departments.” He would eventually stop wearing them, convinced that the socks were a tactical mistake.
Kaepernick’s non-violent gestures, done initially without fanfare, were the most powerful message from SportsWorld since that other hard year of despair and determination, 1968, when two American Olympic medalists, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, raised their black-gloved fists in Mexico City.
Incredibly, Smith, Carlos, and Kaepernick were all tutored by the same man, sociologist Harry Edwards. In the 1960s, as a young San Jose State professor, Edwards created the Olympic Project for Human Rights as his protest against racism. Now a retired Berkeley professor, he has been a long-time adviser to the 49ers.
Forty-nine years ago, as symbols of the so-called Athletic Revolution -- an attempt to resist the tyrannical rule of coaches and administrators, particularly over African-American football players and college track-and-field competitors -- Smith and Carlos were marginalized. Instead athletic “activism” morphed into hustling for sneaker endorsements. But this time, Edwards promises, will be different. “The evident trajectory of the Kaepernick ‘movement’ (and the growing support among athletes for its concerns),” he recently wrote, “means that there are going to be some turbulent times over the upcoming Trump era as the pressure on athletes to stand up and speak out escalates.”
You won’t be surprised to learn that Donald Trump immediately disparaged Kaepernick’s gesture, telling a Seattle radio station, "I think it’s a terrible thing, and you know, maybe he should find a country that works better for him, let him try, it’s not gonna happen." He then moved on, as he tends to do -- perhaps because he was already bored or perhaps because it triggered a memory of his own disastrous pro football days.
Sports Owner Trump Destroyed His League
Donald Trump is an old story for me. When I first began talking to him in the mid-1980s -- I was then a sports reporter for CBS Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt -- he had just bought the New Jersey Generals of the United States Football League (USFL), then in its second year of operation. The USFL played its games in the spring and summer to avoid direct competition with the National Football League for fans and TV access, but did manage to bid successfully against the established league for a number of star players, including Herschel Walker, Steve Young, and Doug Flutie.
In the course of our first long interview, Trump assured me that he was not a man consumed by his latest purchase. (“If the league isn’t successful, then, you know, it’s off to the next thing.”) He did, however, boast -- he was already The Donald, of course -- that his involvement gave the USFL “a little bit more warlike posture toward the establishment,” and that the “magic” of Trump Tower would enhance the image of the league. He insisted that he didn’t much like attention himself, but felt obligated to do this interview because I represented “a great show.” Even then, he spoke in the adjectival style (Great! Sad!) now familiar to all Americans. At the time, though I sensed that it was all mud, I was a journalist and at least it covered the ground.
When I asked him about reports that the USFL’s hidden agenda was to eventually merge with the successful National Football League or at least pressure it into admitting some of the upstart franchises, he responded genially, “I hadn’t thought of it to be perfectly honest,” adding, “I don’t think it’s in the cards for many years.”
Of course, Trump turned out to be the leader of a group of owners pushing the new league to shift its games to the fall, a direct challenge to the NFL. An anti-trust lawsuit against that league followed, ending in a Pyrrhic victory. The USFL received a judgment of $3 and collapsed, having lost tens of millions of dollars in the process.
It was all so Trumpian, so much the shape of things to come. Maybe I didn’t take him seriously enough then because we both came from Queens, a scorned outer borough of New York City, or because he was already a well-known publicity hound and classic boldface tabloid name. But I did come away with two insights that helped me in later interviews with him (when the subject was real estate or politics): first, that he would always respond to a question, even a needling one, as long as he was its subject, and second, that he had a gift for what I came to think of as predatory empathy. He was remarkably skilled at reading what his interviewer wanted to hear and then reshaping himself and his answer accordingly.
Once he read me as a liberal with a weakness for pop philosophy, he typically answered a question about the moral responsibilities of sports owners by offering this supposed credo: “I tend to think that you should be decent, you should be fair, you should be straight, and you should do the best you can. And beyond that, you can’t do very much really. So yeah, you do have a responsibility.” Then, as if adding a note in the margins of his own bland comment, he added, “I’m not sure to what extent that responsibility holds.”
Typically, he had swallowed his own tail and who knew what he meant, including him. Through the 1990s, as the host of a local PBS public affairs show and then back writing columns at the New York Times, I watched his mean-spirited pomposity swell as he filled airtime and notebooks. But what more could a journo ask?
Once, for reasons I can’t recall, I returned to that supposed sense of “responsibility” of his, asking him if he’d like to “run the country as you have run your organization.”
“I would much prefer that somebody else do it. I just don’t know if the somebody else is there,” he replied, as if already imagining January 20, 2017. “This country,” he added ominously, “needs major surgery.”
“Are you the surgeon?”
“I think I’d do a fantastic job, but I really would prefer not doing it.”
I’ve thought about Donald Trump ever since -- he did have that effect on you -- and have come to realize that he’s an avatar of the worst aspects of jock culture. (He had, in fact, been a good high school athlete.) His kind of boastful, bullying, blowfish persona is tolerated in locker rooms (as in sales offices, barracks, trading floors, and legislatures) just as long as the big dog can deliver. Which he has done. It’s no surprise that his close pals and business associates in SportsWorld include two other notorious P.T. Barnums, boxing’s Don King and wrestling’s Vince McMahon (whose wife, Linda, is now Trump's pick to head the Small Business Administration).
Another typical jock culture trait is rolling over for the alpha(est) dog in your arena, be it the team leader, coach, owner, or even the president of Russia. One wonders, had Trump become a successful NFL owner, would he have wimped out as completely as New England Patriots’ owner Robert Kraft did when Russian President Vladimir Putin pocketed his Super Bowl ring in 2005 and walked out of their Moscow meeting room with it. It was never returned. Under pressure from the George W. Bush White House, according to Kraft, he claimed it was a gift, only to change his story years later. Kraft is a Democrat, while his coach, Bill Belichick, and his quarterback, Tom Brady, are friends of Trump. The Patriots, the best team of our era, will, of course, be playing the Atlanta Falcons in the Super Bowl.
A Jock Spring?
Colin Kaepernick, alas, won’t be getting a Super Bowl ring, at least not this year. The 49ers, long a successful and lucrative franchise, ended up with a 2-14 record this season. The 29-year-old Kaepernick is a scrambler with a powerful arm. Once an exciting prospect who led his team to the Super Bowl in 2013, only his second pro season and first as a starter, he seemed to have lost some of his mojo in recent years.
He’s still an interesting character, though: biracial, raised by white adoptive parents, smart, and curious. His torso and arms are tattooed with religious phrases, and he ostentatiously kisses the “To God the Glory” tat on his right biceps after any touchdown, which became known as “Kaepernicking.”
His emergence as a progressive hero, however, surprised even Harry Edwards. “Nobody saw [Muhammad] Ali coming, nobody saw Kaepernick coming,” Edwards told Elliott Almond of the San Jose Mercury News. “He was in the tradition of people who tend to open up new paths. Nobody saw Dr. [Martin Luther] King coming.”
Putting Kaepernick in such a league may be a tad premature, but he has stimulated what might be called a Jock Spring, and not just because he promised to distribute his first million dollars in salary this season to community charities. Women soccer stars, high school football players and their coaches, National Football League and Women’s National Basketball players all began going down on one knee as the national anthem struck up. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg called the gesture “dumb and disrespectful” before professing regret for her remark. Time put Kaepernick on its cover. Trump blamed him, in part, for a decline in the NFL’s ratings.
The initial signs of a Jock Spring actually pre-date his protest. Last July, New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony posted on his Instagram page an old black-and-white photograph of a dozen young black athletes in suits and ties posed in protest at what was then a summit meeting of sports stars. The front row of that 1967 photo now seems like a sports Mt. Rushmore -- Bill Russell, Jim Brown, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Muhammad Ali, whose heavyweight title had been stripped from him after he refused to be drafted into the military.
Anthony’s message called on “all my fellow ATHLETES to step up and take charge. Go to your local officials, leaders, congressman, assemblymen/assemblywoman and demand change. There’s NO more sitting back and being afraid of tackling and addressing political issues anymore. Those days are long gone. We have to step up and take charge. We can’t worry about what endorsements we gonna lose or who is going to look at us crazy. I need your voices to be heard. We can demand change.”
It was a surprising statement from a player best known for not passing the ball enough. A few days later, he joined fellow NBA stars Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, and LeBron James onstage at ESPN’s annual awards show, where LeBron declared: “It’s not about being a role model, it’s not about our responsibility to the tradition of activism. I know tonight we’re honoring Muhammad Ali, the GOAT [Greatest of All Time], but to do his legacy any justice, let’s use this moment as a call to action for all professional athletes to educate ourselves, explore these issues, speak up, use our influence, and renounce all violence.”
A month later, Kaepernick sat down.
“Athletes have the biggest megaphone in the country,” Edwards said to Almond in their Q-and-A. “Everybody identifies with the athletes. Kap has opened up a conversation about what is probably the most convoluted, the most difficult, and the longest-standing and intractable issue in terms of race relations in this country: This is why it was so important for Colin to take off the pig socks.
“I told him that we went through that in the 1960s and it was one of the biggest mistakes we ever made. Ultimately, we are going to have to sit down across the table with the police and hopefully come to some resolution with some of these life-and-death issues.”
As the season ended, Kaepernick’s teammates awarded him their Len Eshmont Award for “inspirational and courageous play,” making a mockery of reports in the media that he had been alienating the rest of the team. Edwards describes the media and the sports establishment as clueless when it comes to Kaepernick’s growing support among athletes -- a phenomenon that promises “some turbulent times over the upcoming Trump era.”
Kaepernick’s most transcendent transgression has been the way he punctured the comfort of football’s sweaty sanctuary, letting in both light and some hard truths -- including this reality: that objectified and extravagantly well paid performers can still have real thoughts about the world outside the white lines, a world becoming more and more perilous for those who think Trumpball should not be the national pastime.
Trump has said he will not be attending the Super Bowl -- that might even be true -- but he will sit for the usual pre-game presidential interview, this year with Bill O’Reilly of Fox, which will broadcast on the holiest event of the sports calendar. Should you tune in? While we’re still a democracy, make your own decision. Do whatever you did for the Inauguration.