The Air Force Honor Guard Drill Team performs at halftime at Giants Stadium, November 15, 2009. (Flickr/NYC Marines)
As the United States celebrates the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., with the swearing-in of this country’s first African-American president, there will no doubt be commentary on the great gap between ceremony and reality. It’s the gap between the public spectacle of President Barack Obama’s inaugural oath—sworn on one of Dr. King’s Bibles, no less—and a country still ravaged by what King called “the giant triplets of racism, militarism and economic injustice.”
In addition to the inaugural festivities, this weekend was also marked by a spectacle that will rival or exceed the inauguration in passion and interest: the National Football League playoffs. NFL football, by a country mile, is the most popular sport in the United States. It also stands as a living monument of the distance we still must travel to slay King’s “giant triplets.” I write this, in full disclosure, as someone who follows the sport religiously, but struggles to not be blind to the politics the NFL pumps through its play.
First and foremost, this weekend’s football games presented an orgy of militarism. From the armed forces ads, to the live shots of the 101st Airborne watching overseas, to the warplanes flying overhead, the unspoken slogan was, “If you like the NFL, you’ll just love the US military.” Amidst the militarism, there was no mention that the greatest commonality between the violent, high-adrenaline excitement on the field and the drudgerous, when not dangerous, poverty-wage work in the US military is traumatic brain injury. The league has even engaged in a joint partnership with the US Army to share research because of the stark similarities between being hit with a concussive grenade or an IED and being hit repeatedly by a middle linebacker. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the tributes to King by the NFL don’t include the time when he said, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom.”
The issue of economic injustice that King was tackling at the end of his life pulses throughout the NFL as well. As King said, “The profit motive, when it is the sole basis of an economic system, encourages a cutthroat competition and selfish ambition that inspires men to be more concerned about making a living than making a life.” The fact that athletically gifted children see the NFL, with all its attendant dangers, as being their ticket out of poverty says so much. The need of their friends and family to attach themselves onto these players as if they are substitutes for the antipoverty programs that no longer exist, also speaks volumes. The fact that for many of the nation’s poor, they can’t even enter the stadium unless they are there to sell pretzels or beer, even though they paid for the stadium with their tax dollars, says even more. The fact that NFL owners are never held accountable for the injuries on the field, the exploitation of players, or the robbing of the public treasury to pay for their domed palaces, only proves another of King’s maxims: “Many white Americans of good will have never connected bigotry with economic exploitation. They have deplored prejudice but tolerated or ignored economic injustice.”