In late 2012, ESPN got involved in a strange controversy. Rob Parker, a black sports reporter, was appearing on ESPN’s First Take when the conversation turned to Robert Griffin III’s statement that he didn’t prefer to be defined as a black quarterback. Parker was asked to comment, and he responded by airing a question he claimed was common among his black colleagues: whether the star player was “a brother, or a cornball brother.” There was an awkward silence in the studio as soon as the words left his mouth, so Parker defined his term. “Yeah, he’s black, he does the whole thing, but he’s not really down with the cause. He’s kinda black, but he’s not really a guy you’d want to hang out with.”
Parker’s line of thinking got a frosty reception from his fellow panelists — check out the po-faced attempt at discourse from living poltergeist Skip Bayless, who asked, “But what do RGIII’s braids say to you?” — and a far frostier reception from ESPN headquarters. The network suits criticized Parker’s comments immediately. After they did everything possible to drum up controversy, they suspended Parker from the air.
It was an interesting moment. A black man was punished for publicizing a slice of black culture, because it was deemed offensive to blacks, by rich white guys who owned a media empire covering the exploits of mostly black men.
The incident sent a clear message about how the sports-industrial complex intends for sports to relate to real life. ESPN, aka Disney Sports, is happy to invoke the specter of race the same way it’s happy to report on heartwarming human interest stories. Parker's questionable comment was too raw. More acceptable: Every April 15, Major League Baseball celebrates Jackie Robinson Day, a commemoration that involves the ridiculous sight of every player in the league wearing the groundbreaking player’s #42. (Oh, how I have longed to see a bench-clearing brawl on a day when all fifty guys are wearing the same number.) On ESPN the montages roll, safely offset from real life by grainy black-and-white film, and tributes are recited. That’s about as deep as sports media wants to go on the race question.
Parker’s ruminations on the complex relationship between blackness and public adulation gain important context in light of Colin Kaepernick’s turbulent week. A few days ago, the San Francisco 49er was just another quarterback whose luster had worn off, a naturally gifted thrower who couldn’t manage a game clock and was in danger of losing his job to an inferior player. Then someone noticed that Kaepernick was woke as a motherfucker and suddenly he turned into Jim Brown. Except a lot of people aren’t really down with the Jim Brown thing.
At first I didn’t know how to feel about Kaepernick’s (non) stand. On the one hand, I love it whenever anyone challenges jingoistic orthodoxy with an act of civil disobedience. On the other, I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something inchoate about his protest. His demands seemed aimless and rooted in "conversation" logic, which has no tangible outcome except publicity. Also, Colin Kaepernick was pretty much the last person I wanted to see broadcast his politics on the field. He’s a thoroughly mediocre quarterback who’s long had a reputation as a cocky punk — a reputation I admit to never interrogating — and zero reputation for leadership. If he was a strong leader like Ray Lewis or Charles Woodson or 49ers teammate Anquan Boldin, the stunt would have been a little more intuitive to get behind. Are these hangups petty? Maybe. Point is, I was conflicted.
Things cleared up real quick when I saw the alternative opinion being offered.
Because this is the NFL we’re talking about, Kaepernick’s critique of the flag was taken to mean one thing: an attack on the military.
"You should have some fucking respect for people who served, especially people that lost their life to protect our freedom," said aggressive fatso Alex Boone. Bengals tight end Tyler Eifert rebutted Kaepernick by sharing the above tribute to, not the enlightenment values our country uniquely embodies, but, gun-planes. Giants guard Justin Pugh made his completely unprovoked defense of the military PC-friendly.
A couple other white people piled on, including Matt Hasselbeck and a former Texans backup whose name my brain has excised to make room for the winner of Bud Bowl VIII. Why were all these people mistaking Colin Kaepernick for a battlefield enemy?
It’s probably because the world of the NFL is ludicrously immersed in the mythos of the American military and is a terrible venue for nuanced social dialogue.
Kaepernick didn't say anything about the military except to (shrewdly) echo the profound gratitude boilerplate. But it didn't matter, because the NFL is pretty much built to conflate the military with the idea of America.
One of the NFL’s major successes as a marketing project has been the construction of a special world that envelops the viewer for 11 straight hours every Sunday. It’s a purpose-built synthesis of American culture that vacuums up fragments of masculinity from mainstream society and blows them into an entertainment bubble. This world has its own rules and its own social order. It revolves around football, which is portrayed as an Olympian war that epitomizes excitement and fulfillment. Your role as a viewer is to be a Bud Light-swilling man-child who has a favorite team and a level of emotional investment that makes ordinary life difficult. The sponsors are your cohorts in the man-cave, helping you get through life until next Sunday’s paroxysm of delight.
Above this entire world sits the United States military. They are gods. The fight they are engaged in is a grand existential competition of which football is a simulacrum. They do a job none of us could do and deserve an ungiveable amount of gratitude for enabling our leisure to take place. Patriotism and all purpose beyond football are rolled into the specter of the American military, which is sort of like the ultimate football team. They’re unbeatable and as unquestionably righteous as your hometown team.
One thing that doesn’t exist in NFL-world is racism. If you were to watch a football game and ask why certain positions tended to be white and others exclusively black (like cornerback) you would get no good answer. If you were to ask the NFL why owners do nothing whatsoever to contribute to the sport and yet make many times more money than the crippled minorities in their employ, you’d get crickets and make everyone deeply uncomfortable.
Partly this silence comes from the NFL wisely sticking to entertainment, and not wading into social commentary. But there's something else, too. I think football considers itself something of a competing theory to racism. It is a colorless meritocracy, or at least it’s supposed to be. There’s no room for identity politics here. Often, there’s no room for identity at all, beyond the colors you wear.
This commitment to martial conformity has always made football a natural partner of the military. (No homo.) Together, they’re basically the only remaining institutions that lionize masculinity. Nowhere else can you find such unbridled displays of testosterone, violence, and ruthless triumphalism at such cultural scale. At the same time, they both provide pathways to genuine racial equality. We all wear the same uniform in battle; that kind of thing.
Embracing the armed forces offloads an important responsibility from the NFL. The league is so popular, so central to American male culture, that were it not to prostrate in front of a higher cause, it might seem presumptuously self-important. Parading the military solves for that. The pre-game flyovers, the constant mentions of gratitude — all of it serves to diminish, and thereby authorize, the on-field drama by comparing it to the real game being played on behalf of freedom around the world. The military, in short, is a stand-in for all the prosperity that allows a professional sports league to make gobs of money and entertain idle, beer-drinking fans. Abraham Lincoln famously viewed the Declaration of Independence as the most important aspect of America. The NFL prefers the military.
That’s why Colin Kaepernick’s critics have been unable to see his protest on the sociological grounds he claims. They’ve been acculturated to worship our country’s war machine.
It isn’t Kaepernick’s fault that he’s taken his protest for racial justice to a useless venue. After all, there are no other institutions left to turn to for social guidance. The church? Ha! God is for touchdowns, not public morality. The government? Please, they even turned that into football. The NFL is the center of the culture that Black Lives Matter seeks to change. Unfortunately, the NFL is not equipped for dialogue. At the end of the day, it remains a corporation in whose synthetic version of reality the United States means its military, and its military means justice.