By Vincent Toro on Thursday, September 22nd, 2016 at 10:31 am
My news feed is plastered with the face of Colin Kaepernick, a player for the 49’ers who quietly decided to sit during the national anthem. Outrage about his refusal to stand is broadcast across platforms: on television, in periodicals, in the comments sections of social media posts.
When wading through the vast swamp of news items and opinions delivered to my screen, it is usually my instinct to avoid any football related content. But my eye glimpsed a post from a friend of mine who shared Kaepernick’s statement about the incident:
I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses
black people and people of color… To me, this is bigger than football and it
would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street
and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.
And in the few seconds it took to read those words, Colin Kapernick won my attention.
Since 1977, North Bergen High School’s football team has won six state championships in New Jersey. The number would have been seven, but after winning the 2011 championship they had their title stripped when it was discovered that they had been using unethical recruiting methods (the team’s two star players were tenants of coach Vincent Ascolese, who coerced them to transfer to NBHS to play for him).
I attended North Bergen High School from 1989 to 1993. My mind is still drenched with the red and gold of the banners and trophies that smother the school’s hallways. I recall that there was no space, no classroom, cafeteria, or office that was not rife with talk about the football season. This school of nearly three thousand students, which according to the Education Law Center is the most underfunded school in New Jersey, never lacked in resources for athletics. Football was king at NBHS. Every student, teacher, and administrator intrinsically understood that pep rallies and practice were to take precedence over academics. Science fairs and arts showcases would have to make do with less. The team needed that time, that space, those funds. If you were not on the team or functioning in support of the team it was made clear by those who ran the school that you were second class.
24/7 Wall Street reported in 2015 that forty of the fifty highest paid public employees in each state is a football or basketball coach. Together, they earned 129 million of the taxpayers’ dollars that year. A monetary value applied to a thing can reveal to us how important that thing is to us, at least in relation to the market. If the highest paid public employees are sports coaches then we are left to assume that we value what they do over the labor of someone working for the Department of Health, or The Child and Family Services Office, or The Education Department. Capitalism convinces us that the worth of a thing is based on what is collectively most valued and most needed. We are told the hierarchy of worth is of our own devise, that we create the demand. But too often the demand and worth of a thing is fabricated long before we know that thing even exists.
My own worth as non-athlete within the school hierarchy was made evident almost daily. I wore no jersey, either as part of the team or in school spirit. Instead I chose to spend my time hanging out near the music room with the stage crew. Since I wanted no part in contributing to the football machine, I was to stay out of the way or be run over.
I was not good at staying out of the way. Once when three players from the football team stole my books and tossed them in the trash, I defended myself, and was unsurprisingly trounced. What was surprising was the conversation I was privy to while sitting with the other three boys in the principal’s office. The principal, his vice principals, and the football coach, who was summoned to attend the meeting, were justifying why it is that I should be suspended for provoking the fight, but “the boys” couldn’t be suspended because then they would not be eligible for the game that week, and the team was inches from making the playoffs. In the end they opted to go easy on me and just give me three days detention. “The boys” were dismissed and politely asked to stay out of trouble and focus on the game.
My wife and I watch the Frontline documentary League of Denial. The film sets me off on a personal (and futile) online crusade to inform people about the concussion crisis in football. Moved to tears by the story of Pittsburgh Steelers legend Mike Webster, I wrote a poem about chronic traumatic encephalopathy that was published on the day of the Superbowl. Webster, who helped Pittsburgh win four rings, was experiencing levels of dementia previously attributed to men in their late seventies. His legs were completely destroyed, and lacking health insurance, he used duct tape to hold them together.
The poem is my first publication to garner me hate mail. After distributing the poem and sharing articles related to the film on my Facebook page there is a minor exodus from my friends list. Nothing I’ve ever posted had earned me so many “de-friendings.” In League of Denial, the filmmakers focus on the millions of dollars in resources NFL commissioner Roger Goodell committed to burying the scientific research on the catastrophic damage the game had done to the brains of hundreds of players, including Junior Seau, who committed suicide and asked that his brain be analyzed. But Goodell wasted the league’s money. He did not need to cover up the evidence. Like climate change deniers, NFL fans were going to aggressively ignore all the evidence anyway. They did the job of covering it up for him.
The same week that the media expends its resources vilifying Kaepernick, Brock Turner is released from prison. Turner, a swimmer, serves a mere three months of his sentence for raping a woman behind a dumpster after a campus party. When the media does choose to mention Turner, they fill the space with discussion of his swim times. I see nothing in the news about Kaepernick’s completion percentage or his number of touchdown passes.
In my classroom we are reading David Zirin’s article on the Steubenville rape case, where the members of a high school football team one night repeatedly raped a young lady and recorded it. We are discussing the school’s efforts to cover up the incident. My students want to know why the adults involved worked so diligently to try to make it “go away.” Why were the adults not interested in justice for the victim? A student points out that Zirin wants his readers to understand that young athletes are taught that they have entitlements because they are special. They are taught that women are one of these entitlements. In the eyes of those who see these boys as entitled, they don’t see the rape as a problem.
“Then why try to cover it up?” I ask him. “If they felt no wrong had been done, then why do the work to hide it? We don’t hide things that we don’t see as wrong. Do we?”
The class comes to the conclusion that the article, and the issue, is not (only) about football. It is about being an accomplice to violence. The Steubenville rapists committed the rape at a party in front of other people, some of them young women. They filmed it and put it online. There was any number of people that could have stopped it, or reported it sooner. But they did not. Perhaps Zirin is right and the players see the women as an entitlement, but this is so because an environment was designed around them to make them feel as if they could claim such entitlements. That means a whole community has to also feel entitled: entitled to a winning football team in their town, entitled to be entertained, entitled to other people’s bodies. As the Steubenville football players saw a young woman’s body as theirs to do with as they please, the people in their town see the bodies of those young boys to do with as they please. The young woman’s body is punished for the pleasure of the young men on the team. The young men’s bodies are punished on the field for the pleasure of the entire town.
At dinner, my friend Greg tells me what bothers him about high school football is that his taxes go to patching up some other parent’s kid. Seeing the confusion on my face, he explains that an absurd amount of tax money is spent on medical care for young men who are injured playing football for their town. He tells me I’ve probably spent thousands of dollars on surgery for some kid’s knee because he opted to play football. “Probably to make his dad happy or something,” he quips.
In a town like North Bergen, football is pushed on young men. I use the word “push” the same way one uses it when they say the phrase “push drugs.” Instead of drug pushers, we had football pushers. I was scrawny. I was sensitive. At seven or eight years old there was nothing about me that would give the impression that I wanted any part of football. And yet nearly every adult male around me, and all the male children in my age range, insisted that I could not call myself a man unless I fancied the pigskin. Every male in proximity to me (except for my own father) worked ardently to suffuse football to my identity. For years I pretended to enjoy the brutality of the sport, but it was mostly to avoid the wrath of men. I was almost literally dragged onto a field countless times to take part in the game. But I saw no fun in getting hit. More importantly, I did not understand what pleasure could be had from hitting my friends. I loved them, why would I want to hurt them? And yet in school, on the street, on the television, it was made clear to me that this is what men must do. The game had cast its imprint upon male identity in America. If you weren’t going to pursue the entitlements of playing the game you had to at least watch the game while you howled and drank and deified the men who did play the game. Otherwise you were not allowed to call yourself a man.
So I became a master of excuses whenever the boys came around to drag me to a game in the park. It was too cold. Too hot. I’m sick. There’s a film on HBO I don’t want to miss. I’m punished. I haven’t finished my homework. Can’t we just go swimming or play some basketball?
Eventually the excuses ran thin, and I would be caught having to say I just didn’t feel like it. Many friendships withered because I had no interest in football. My refusals were most often met with chastisement and confrontation.
The same week that we are looking at David Zirin’s piece in my classes, Ray Rice is caught on video beating his wife in an elevator and leaving her unconscious. It is his wife who later apologizes for the incident. I ask a group of students if they see any connection to how Rice is being absolved of his crime and what Zirin has to say about athletes and entitlements. “Is Ray Rice’s wife just an entitlement?” I inquire. In response, both male and female students declare, as thousands of online comments have declared, “she should not have provoked him.”
My students do not know it, or do not yet have words for it, but like the townsfolk of Steubenville, they don’t want Ray Rice to be guilty because they are invested in Rice’s presence on the field. If they are not fans of the team he plays for, they are fans of the game. The male students have already had football grafted onto their own identities, and the women have been told that being married to a football player, or any well paid athlete, is something to desire. They are experiencing cognitive dissonance, a psychological term for the mental stress that comes with being shown that one possesses two conflicting beliefs. My students inherently know that beating a woman is wrong, but they have grown up being told that football is a glowing example of all that is great in America. A core narrative of the American Dream is that of the individual with humble beginnings who, with their talent and hard work, triumphs to succeed and become a millionaire. And in America there is nothing more divine than becoming a millionaire.
The videotape of Rice hitting his wife in the elevator forces my students to confront their notion that someone who has lived this narrative can also be an abuser. Now they must question their own desires and decide if they will switch their loyalties. Or if they will ignore facts.
My disdain for football was not the only thing that got me in trouble with other men. I also had an aversion to pledging allegiance that put me on the receiving end of male hostility.
I began refusing to pledge as early as kindergarten. At that age it was not my choice to refuse to stand for the anthem and the pledge of allegiance. My grandmother was a Jehovah’s Witness and she had indoctrinated me to accept that it was against our religion to pledge allegiance. My teachers were the first to punish me for it, making me stand in the corner, not allowing me to return to my seat until I recited the pledge, giving me lunch detention, refusing me snack time cookies. But I had decided to stay loyal to my grandmother’s wishes and took the punishment. Once the teacher had established that I was outcast, the students quickly followed. I was shoved and teased in the courtyard, and no one else wanted to pair up with me for class activities.
Once I was old enough to decide autonomously I began to stand and pledge. I did it because my mother ended my grandmother’s influence upon me, but I also did it because I was tired of the abuse. And because I was lonely. And because I wanted friends.
But by high school I was back to refusing to stand and pledge. This time it was because I was learning more about my own history. I had learned that Puerto Rico, the island of my ancestors, has been a colony of the U.S. for a hundred years, and that it was a colony of Spain for four hundred years before that. I read a short story by Abraham T. Rodriguez, “The Boy Without a Flag.” The protagonist of the story refuses to pledge allegiance because the American flag is not his flag. He makes the decision to not pledge allegiance because his father has been teaching him about Puerto Rico’s colonial subservience to the United States. So when pushed to stand before the flag the boy protests. His flag is the Puerto Rican flag, he tells the adults who govern him. After several days of this civil disobedience, his father is called to come into school. Upon hearing what his son has done, the boy’s father publicly scolds and punishes him, then forces the child to pledge allegiance to the U.S. flag, unaware that his son’s protest were the result of what he was teaching the child.
I was older than the child in “The Boy Without a Flag,” and being older, I figured that I was beyond the kind of punishment that he received. I decided to stop pledging again, and this time the teachers did not necessarily punish me, but they made it clear to the class that there was something wrong with me and that maybe I was not to be trusted. Some classmates chose to avoid me or to give me passive aggressive grief as a result, but not all of them. If confronted by anyone about my refusal to pledge allegiance, I ranted, somewhat incoherently, about colonial servitude and democracy and free speech, until they were too confused to want to continue engaging with me.
Now, as a teacher, I still refuse to pledge. As the adult at the front of the classroom I am never questioned about this decision by my colleagues, though students have asked me why I abstain, and I always tell them that I am Puerto Rican, and that the U.S. owns our island, our affiliation is not a choice, and so they do not have my allegiance. If I’m at a school with more conservative leanings, I’ll chose to avoid conflict by joking that if they really wanted me to pledge they would play some Eddie Palmieri instead. For that I’d stand up and pledge without question. And dance too!
But I am not free from the ridicule and confrontation. Not on a sports field. I have been at many a baseball game when the anthem comes on and I remain seated. Numerous times a grown male has yelled and cursed at me, called me ungrateful. One wanted to fight me. I asked him if he was trying to take away my freedom. He turned back to face the field and grumbled something under his breath. On the field that day we both watched Carlos Delgado play. Delgado, a fellow Puerto Rican playing for the Mets at the time, refused to stand for the National Anthem that same year. Like the boy in the Abraham T. Rodriguez story, Delgado stated he did not stand because his country was a colony of the U.S. (he also said that it was in protest of the U.S. invasion of Iraq). Delgado, of course, was skewered in the media for taking this stance. Even though Delgado helped bring the Mets all the way to the league championship he too was being called a traitor. It was not enough to sweat on the field for his fans and teammates, just as it wasn’t enough that I worked every day to educate American children. Our blind loyalty is also required. Our silence is required.
Paolo Freire said that human beings are not born in silence. Zack De La Rocha screamed, “Silence can be violent.” In my classes I teach that we must use our voices when people are silenced. The world of men asks us to remain silent and ignore Steubenville, to ignore the concussion crisis, to get over the rapes Ben Roethlisberger committed, to overlook that Ray Rice beat his wife, to forget about Richie Incognito’s racist texts and abuses toward a Latino teammate, to dismiss Brett Favre’s sexual harassment of countless women, to forgive the rampant sex trafficking that occurs during Superbowl weekend every year, to turn a blind eye to the three white high school football players in Dietrich, Idaho who raped their black teammate, to forget these and countless other acts of violence committed by men they admire. This world of men wants me to ignore all this because they love the game. The game is fun. The game makes them feel like men. They insist that I not draw connections between these brutal moments and the sport they were raised on. They get hostile when I do it anyway because they are sure I am trying to ruin their fun, because here in this place, in this world of men, their fun is more important than the broken bodies it leaves for the rest of us to rescue and resuscitate. In this world of men, smashing things is an entitlement. Destroying things is their reward for suiting up, taking the field, and standing to pledge their allegiance.
A number of NFL fans have responded to Colin Kaepernick’s decision with pure rage. They’ve labeled him ungrateful, called him disrespectful, and have said he does not deserve to wear an NFL uniform. Another player said he was not black enough, as if one has to be black to care that black men are being subjected to state sanctioned murder. The response to his deed has been the opposite of the response to Ray Rice’s domestic abuse. Apparently beating your spouse is not in conflict with American values but exerting your freedom to abstain from worship of the state is.
Many are coming to Kaepernick’s defense, among them countless of my friends and colleagues. But I am surprised by their surprise. The attacks on Kaepernick are deplorable. And they are also to be expected.
They are to be expected because football is not just a sport. Its function is much more than mere distraction and entertainment. There is a reason why the highest paid public employee in forty out of fifty states is a football or basketball coach. There is a reason why my school was able to cancel classes for any football related rally. There is a reason why nearly every high school in America has a football team, even when they “lack funds” for chess club or drama club or a library. There is a reason why the national anthem is played at football games. There is a reason why the NFL is registered as a nonprofit organization. There is a reason why it so important for football to be forcefully welded to male identity.
In a nation whose economy is driven by militarization it is essential that men be indoctrinated to see war as a core element of their identity. Humans are guided by the desires linked to the identities they have constructed for themselves. And if they are later deprived of access to that which affirms the identity that has been constructed (either by them or by someone else) it can feel like death.
Football engenders both the patriotism and the bloodlust necessary to build armies. The game is designed to be an emulation of modes of war. The teams are suited to resemble military regimes. The strategies applied are military strategies; create a wall of bodies so the enemy cannot pass, penetrate that wall with a ground assault, use airborne tactics to fire past the wall. There are offensive and defensive formations that are named using terminology of war such as the pistol, the shotgun, and the blitzkrieg. The roles on the team are structured like military outfits; there is a field general (a quarterback) and an off field commander and his team of advisors (coordinators). These roles are strictly hierarchical and the chain of command is decidedly undemocratic. Orders are given from above and they must be implemented without question. If any player veers from those orders and they don’t succeed there is punishment and penalty. The game is inherently imperialistic. The goal is to invade enemy territory and take control of it. Once you have infiltrated the opponent’s base of operations you are awarded points.
Football’s ulterior purpose is to normalize the idea of war for those watching the game. By taking in the game there is an inception that occurs: the audience affirms the usefulness and inevitability of war, invasion by brutal (though intelligently planned out) force comes to be perceived as both “natural” and a form of recreation. Through team fandom humans are conditioned to be patriotic. They become accustomed to blindly following a uniform, and to take sides, to see those on the other side as “the enemy.” They learn to follow their regime without question, for better or worse, despite the wrong that the team makes, or their players on and off the field. Unless that player for some reason acts in opposition to this ideology, or if they question the world that has been created for them by the decision makers up above. Then they may be privy to punishment for not being unquestioning followers, for not pledging allegiance. This is true even if his action is to merely sit and be silent.
Francine Prose, in her essay “Voting Democracy Off the Island” examines the phenomenon of reality television to make explicit the manner in which media events can be used to condition or massage the public into accepting the unethical and harmful actions of those in power. As she articulates it:
After you’ve seen a “real person” lie about his grandmother’s death, you may
be slightly less shocked to learn that our leaders failed to come clean about
the weapons of mass destruction.
And so it is with football. If a young man can be conditioned to harm their own body for the “greater good” of the team, or if they can be indoctrinated from early childhood into blindly following that team and its players to the point of donating their earnings, then when they are called upon by the nation to be patriotic, to blindly follow their leaders when those leaders want to send them to war it will all seem normal and natural. Why wouldn’t they kill or die for the regime, that’s just how things are done. Its just what men do. “It is what it is.”
This is why so much public money is spent on pushing football on young men. It’s why the national anthem is so important at these games. It undermines the process to be participating in a game that was created to make people follow a violent and militaristic ideology, only have that someone oppose those ideologies by refusing to stand during salute to the regime that paid you to promote these ideas. Then what is the point of that person being there? It’s not to play the game, because the game is not the point. The point is the indoctrination. This one man decides to say to the audience, “don’t succumb to the indoctrination, even though I am a paid employee of the sport whose function it is to indoctrinate you.” It makes no sense.
Colin Kaepernick’s actions are in direct opposition to the game he is playing. This is why his decision to sit for the anthem is met with such animosity. Either he is there to sacrifice his body to the game that is designed to create violent and obedient men, or he is not. He can’t be there to play a game created for such a purpose but then say he won’t stand to acknowledge that this is the purpose of the game.
Well, he can do those things, and he did. But he had to expect, we all have to expect a response of derision and open hostility. Like Michael Sam, the first player drafted by the NFL to be openly gay, Colin Kaepernick is a grain of sand in a computer, a computer with a specific set of programs and functions. His civil disobedience is a glitch in the system.
It’s a glitch I would pay for a ticket to witness.
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