Snatching immigrant babies may have scored some points for President Trump with his base, but it was never going to light up the scoreboard like tackling black jocks. That one really played to the grandstands. The complicated combination of adoration and resentment so many white males feel for those rich, accomplished über-men is a significant but rarely discussed aspect of fandom, especially in relation to football, that magna cum macho of American sports.
Last September, when the commander in chief of toxic masculinity dubbed any football player who didn’t stand during the playing of the national anthem a “son of a bitch,” the war on black men took a spectacular pop-cultural surge. And unlike white cops who shoot unarmed black men, President Trump didn’t even have to claim that he had been afraid.
He should have been, though. After all, he might have sparked a slaves’ revolt that, in the end, could do him in. The opportunity to crack the whip on the fantasy plantation called pro football was, however, just too irresistible for him. Whether it will trigger a long-awaited, long-deferred Jock Spring is the big question of the coming season to which there’s a critical corollary: Will such sustained activism be supported by the white players of the National Football League as well? That hasn’t happened yet and it could change things in major ways.
“For white players it’s about the fear of losing their jobs,” David Meggyesy, a white former NFL linebacker, who in the 1960s set a standard for radical outspokenness, told me recently. “But too many white fans share Trump’s tribalism that includes seeing white players as the brains and black players as the bodies, not too smart, who should just shut up and play.”
Trump, once a pro-football owner himself, clearly understands a white male mindset in which black football players exist only to provide on-field thrills, never to be humanized, much less allowed to protest inequality and racism. Meanwhile, the players, most of whom know that they are easily replaceable, often lacking guaranteed contracts, exist at the sufferance of their white billionaire team owners, a number of whom were early Trump donors.
Looking back, it’s little wonder that, for almost half a century, black athletes had been a politically silent segment of the black entertainment industry. The reigning superstars—O.J. Simpson, Michael Jordan, and Tiger Woods—collaborated with owners, television, and corporate America in their successful pursuit of record-breaking wealth, while refusing to take stands against racism. Simpson and Woods even denied their own blackness. O.J. once explained to me that he wasn’t black or white, he was O.J., while Tiger, with a Thai mother and an African-American father, claimed to be “Cablinasian.” They set the standard and its reward system: As long as the players continued to remain apolitical, owners and fans were basically willing to tolerate bad behavior, ostentation, and a sullen refusal to be grateful.
But by 2016, with Trump soon to be elected, O.J. in jail, Tiger in decline, and Jordan now the principal owner of the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets, the resistance, led by Colin Kaepernick on that now-famous knee, began to grow. President Trump would be directly dissed when, in April 2017, many New England Patriots declined invitations to the White House after winning the 2017 Super Bowl. That September, after the president disinvited Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry to the White House for comments he made suggesting that he might not attend a championship ceremony there, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ LeBron James chipped in. He addressed Trump in a tweet as “U Bum” and wrote that “going to White House was a great honor until you showed up!” In June 2018, Trump had to cancel a Super Bowl party after most of the Super-Bowl-winning Philadelphia Eagles team indicated they wouldn’t be attending. And in June, LeBron and Curry once again said that, whichever of their teams won the NBA championship, neither would be stopping by with the league trophy and a jersey with Trump’s name on the back.
That could be part of the reason why, a week before that title tournament began, the president issued a posthumous pardon for Jack Johnson, who in 1908 was the first African-American to become world heavyweight boxing champion. Both Presidents Bush and Obama had declined to pardon him when asked.
In 1913, Johnson had been convicted of transporting a white woman over a state line “for immoral purposes” in violation of the Mann Act. He fled the country but eventually returned to serve prison time. The son of former slaves, Johnson, who died in 1946, became a symbol of black athletic activism for flaunting his money, his bling, and his white paramours.
Sports fans were so outraged by his success and his attitude that the call went out for a “Great White Hope” who would beat him in the ring. Novelist Jack London even begged a retired white champ, Jim Jeffries, to “emerge from his alfalfa farm and remove that smile off Johnson’s face.” In 1910, in the “fight of the century,” Jeffries was soundly beaten and race riots subsequently broke out across the country with hundreds injured and 20 people killed. Back when a boxing champion was the beau ideal of masculinity, it was simply unacceptable to have a black Mr. Man.
Ghosts in the House
Sixty years later, when boxing legend Muhammad Ali returned to the ring (after he had been stripped of his championship title for refusing to be drafted into the Army in a protest against the Vietnam War), he said he had drawn strength from Johnson standing up to his persecutors. Visiting with Ali in those days, I remember him watching old films of Johnson on a bed sheet hung in the living room of his training camp quarters. He kept pointing at Johnson and yelling, “He’s the ghost in the house, the ghost in the house!”
Between Johnson and Ali, what I once termed SportsWorld produced plenty of ghosts—star athletes who were punished for exhibiting a free man’s outspokenness in the confines of what filmmaker Ken Burns, in his documentary on Johnson, called “unforgiveable blackness.” Brooklyn Dodgers second baseman Jackie Robinson, now a saint for breaking baseball’s color barrier, was subjected to pressures that probably led to his fatal heart attack at 53; Ali lost the prime of his boxing career and never made Jordan-style money; sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos were thrown off the Olympic team and marginalized for raising their fists in protest against racism at the 1968 Mexico City games. NBA basketball stars Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul Jabbar were treated coldly for their starchy sense of independence and baseball All-Star centerfielder Curt Flood’s career went into the tank after he unsuccessfully challenged baseball’s former restrictive reserve clause that kept players tethered to the teams holding their contracts.
Each of those lives also represented a grim lesson learned by the generations of black athletes who followed them. You can be forgiven for violence (especially against women) and even greed (if it isn’t at the expense of club owners), but you can’t challenge the establishment. As Harry Edwards, the sociologist who advised Smith and Carlos before their Olympic demonstration, once told me, white fans prefer the “grinners” when choosing their favorite black athletes, the ones who allow them to feel good about their fandom.
Not coincidentally, it was Edwards, in his role as an official guidance counselor for the San Francisco 49ers, who advised Colin Kaepernick in his brilliant and apparently career-ending refusal to stand for the anthem.
Again, the empire struck back, as it had 48 years earlier against Smith and Carlos. Without either official acknowledgement or explanation, club owners have simply denied Kaepernick, a skilled quarterback in his prime, a chance to work. In that group decision, the arrogance of the National Football League seemed modeled on the Olympic Committee’s. The severity of the response was also an updated affirmation that, in SportsWorld, star athletes are never to repudiate the values of the establishment, that independence will be quashed.
Sportswriter Howard Bryant, author of The Heritage: Black Athletes, A Divided America, and the Politics of Patriotism, traces the recent rise of black activism to a post-9/11 transformation of sports events into celebrations of the military and the police even as African Americans were victimized in America. In an interview with Dave Zirin, Bryant said:
And now we have black players being turned against their own country by the White House and by the people who own the teams, and it is deliberate. It’s deliberate and it’s designed to demonize not only the black athlete, but the black concern over police brutality: to turn fighting police brutality into being un-American. It has essentially turned the American flag into a symbol of whiteness and turned the players who are protesting police brutality into symbols of anti-Americanism, which could not be further from the truth.
Zirin himself co-authored Things That Make White People Uncomfortable with star Seattle Seahawks defensive lineman Michael Bennett, who decided last year not to stand for the anthem “to honor the founding principles of this country.” That was soon after the alt-right, neo-Nazi violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, that the president did anything but condemn. In response, Bennett wrote: “I can’t hide behind the glamour and glitz of football and fame. The reality is that I’m a Black man in America and I am going to be a Black man in America long after I’m out of this league.”
While no one can doubt the physical courage that NFL players are paid to display in game after game at the risk of disability and early death, moral courage is another matter. Once you get beyond figures like Kaepernick, his 49ers teammate Eric Reid (who has also been shunned by the NFL), Bennett, Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins, and—a true rarity in these years—his white teammate defensive end Chris Long, things thin out relatively quickly.
Those pro football players who want to protest without necessarily meeting Kaepernick’s end will be challenged further in the coming season by new league rules. In a clear concession to Trump and the preponderance of owners who backed him, the NFL decided several months ago that players must stand for the national anthem or be subject to fines. Alternatively, they may remain out of sight in the locker room until the anthem is over, which, of course, is just another way of shutting them up (or down).
For a variety of reasons, despite the president’s focus on them, National Football League players are not in the same progressive league as their basketball equivalents, although the NFL and the NBA are both about 70 percent black. Basketball superstars like LeBron, Curry, and Carmelo Anthony, as well as white coaches Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr have spoken out strongly against Trump and racial inequality. Oscar Robertson, now 79, an all-time NBA star and activist, has, for instance, wondered out loud just where the white allies of the protesting black football players might be.
“They don’t fully understand the issues yet,” said Meggysey, now 76, in a phone interview. He became an official of the NFL players union long after his football days ended and now he concludes, “For all the talk of color-blind team brotherhood and shared goals, the racialism that black players live with every day is simply not shared by whites. It would be great if a Tom Brady, an Aaron Rodgers had the balls to step forward. Thank God for Colin. Every so often a hero comes forward. Ali, Smith and Carlos, Billie Jean King. You can only hope their message is delivered.”
Then he laughed and added, “You know, this new rule about staying in the locker-room during the anthem, it doesn’t say for how long or when you have to come out. If they could just all get together and delay the TV broadcast of the game for ten or fifteen minutes, cost millions in commercials, who knows. Maybe that’s something the owners and Trump would understand.”
They would also understand that a wider resistance among young men who posture as warriors but too often act like the serfs of the owners, coaches, and even doctors who use them as avatars of their own macho dreams of power could make common cause with those in the grandstands. Sports fans, seeing activist athletes finally standing up as the multicolored brotherhood they are supposed to be, might figure out which side they are really on.