When six members of the New England Patriots declined to celebrate their historic Super Bowl win at the White House in February, the US media quickly rehashed familiar talking points about the separation of politics and sport. Most of these will be familiar to West Indians who could not watch South African cricketers play during the apartheid years and need no rehearsing; but anyone who has followed recent scandals such as Jack Warner’s manoeuvring at FIFA, or the cut-throat backroom deals for Olympic venues, will also know that politics and sport are intimately connected, and always have been.
Opening ceremonies for many US sports unashamedly propagandize for the US military. Even the half-time entertainment is monitored to prevent it straying from pro-military and corporate-friendly messaging into social commentary. When Beyonce Knowles sang at last year’s Super Bowl in a Black Panther outfit, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani fulminated: “This is football, it’s not Hollywood.” He condemned Knowles for “attack[ing] police officers who are the people who protect her and protect us, and keep us alive.” Yet nary an eyebrow was raised among the permanently outraged custodians of American moral values when Hank Williams Jr, a country singer who compared President Obama to Adolf Hitler and complained that the “Muslim” president “hates cowboys, hates cowgirls, hates fishing, hates farming, [and] loves gays” was brought back this June to ESPN’s Monday Night Football after a six-year hiatus.
As the National Football League kicked off its ninety-eighth season two weeks ago, the best known casualty of the sports and politics controversy is former San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick became persona non grata to NFL owners after deciding not to stand for the US national anthem last year – in solidarity with African Americans gunned down by US police. Kaepernick has had an impressive career; last year even though his statistics declined and he became a free agent, he was ranked 17 out of the league’s 64 quarterbacks. Now he has become a lightning rod in the US culture wars and his detractors claim the protest is a publicity stunt to conceal a slump. Fellow athletes see the matter quite differently. Last month, for instance, Green Bay Packers star quarterback Aaron Rodgers told ESPN that Kaepernick “should be on a roster right now … I think because of his protests, he’s not.”
Kaepernick’s protest is the latest in a distinguished line of dissenting US athletes. These include Muhammad Ali who refused the military draft for Vietnam in 1967, at the height of his professional career, and the sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos who gave an iconic Black Power salute during a medal ceremony at the Mexico City Olympics a year later. (Everyone remembers their gloves, but Smith and Carlos also wore no shoes, to allude to the poverty of black America, and a scarf and beads to evoke the memory those who had been lynched.) History absolved all three of these men from their alleged sins and they are now generally seen as heroic figures, but each endured considerable vilification at the time. A white jury convicted Ali of draft evasion and he was sentenced to five years in prison, fined $10,000 and banned from boxing for three years. (Four years later the Supreme Court would unanimously vindicate his status as a “conscientious objector” and in 1974 he would regain his heavyweight title by his epic defeat of George Foreman.) When Smith and Carlos returned home a prominent columnist called them “black-skinned storm troopers” and they received several death threats.
In the current US cultural moment of disputed monuments and increasing racial confrontation, Kaepernick’s marginalization from the NFL is particularly shameful given the league’s long history of excusing players for actual crimes and misdemeanours. The NFL’s owners have essentially said that they will tolerate domestic abuse, violence and drug taking but not peaceful dissent. In the words of the civil rights activist Shaun King, Kaepernick – a college graduate with a quiet manner – is “everything young black men are told they will need to be to rise up any type of corporate ladder” except, of course, for his nonconformity. It is worth noting that almost 70 per cent of the NFL is black and Kaepernick’s principled dissent bothers them far less than the shilling for Donald Trump that New England Patriot quarterback Tom Brady engaged in last year. Watching Kaepernick’s effective banishment from the NFL it is hard not to agree that his true crime, as described by the Atlantic’s Adam Serwer is “his rejection of the faustian bargain offered to black people who reach elite status in America––that their success comes at the price of ceasing to criticize the racism in the system that allowed them to thrive as exceptions.”