In the imagination of previous generations of Americans, football was as wholesome as apple pie and church on Sundays. The fact that National Football League games followed (or replaced) Christian services lent them a certain religious quality. To oppose football would have been, for millions of Americans, the equivalent of denouncing dear old mom. For me, growing up in Texas in the 1980s and ‘90s, playing varsity football was nothing less than a rite of passage into manhood.
But over the past decade, football’s “untouchable” status has withered. Much of this has to do with high-profile cases of domestic violence. But more than anything, awareness of the impact of concussions and CTE is driving a silent boycott of the sport. Football is collapsing from the bottom up, as suburban parents pull their sons out of peewee leagues and encourage them to take up water polo or cross-country. As scientists continue to learn more about the impact of repeated trauma to the brain, especially in early life, an ever greater number of people will find the sport taboo and unwatchable on a professional level. (The NFL has already reached a $750 million dollar settlement with former players over concussion-related injuries and illnesses. No doubt, trial lawyers are salivating over the chance to plunder the industry for all its worth.)
But ultimately, the concussion phenomenon is not a good reason to stop watching football. They’re grown men, after all, and the impulse to risk one’s health for fame and glory is admirable. Yes, football is dangerous, but the real reason we must stop watching football is that the sport is making us less dangerous, less vital in critically important ways. Football fandom is domesticating White people. It’s turning us into meatsacks without agency. We are passive spectators, not just of sports but of history. There is a pressing need for us to unplug ourselves from the football machine…to become atheists of the pigskin religion…and dispel the mesmerizing quality it has over us minds.
A common refrain from many “conservative” football fans and commentators is that we should focus on “what happens on the field,” and put race and politics aside. To the contrary. We must look at the impact this industry has off the field, on politics, culture, society, sex, and race—on our morality, values, and hopes and dreams. We must look at how football makes us act and think.
In my lifetime, football has gone from being an cultural idol to yet one more American institution suffering from legitimacy crisis—and with no obvious path to redemption. There is no better time to sound it out: to discover what’s hallow and what is resonate, what’s salvagble and what must be discarded.
On September 23, 2017, Donald Trump launched a new front in the culture war. More accurately, he revealed a racial and political animus that was simmering under the surface of professional sports for decades. At a rally in Alabama (one of the most football mad places in America) Trump went off-script:
Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he’s fired. He’s fired! . . . You know, some owner is going to do that. He’s going to say, “That guy that disrespects our flag, he’s fired.” And that owner, they don’t know it [but] they’ll be the most popular person in this country.
Trump was, of course, referring to the phenomenon of kneeling during the singing of the national anthem, which had been sparked by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick during the 2016 pre-season. Trump was quick to claim that his opposition was “not about race” and only about “disrespecting the flag.” But for everyone participating in the protest, it was all about race (and not just about police violence). In the words of Kaepernick,
I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.
By 2017, Kaepernick was no longer in the League. His performance had noticeably declined, and his theatrics apparently rendered him un-signable. But his absence only intensified the controversy, making him a kind of martyr of the racist system he protested.
Sportswriters, who tend to be soft liberals, have long cheered on the politicization of sports. It lends a “seriousness” to an otherwise of juvenile profession composed of nerds writing about jocks. It’s also a way of addressing the troubling dynamics of an overwhelmingly White audience cheering on overwhelmingly Black athletes (which I’ll discuss further below).
The Anthem protest—and the reaction to it—was yet another instance in the long saga once known as “The Negro Question”—the political and social status of Africans living in a White country: slave or citizen, American or something else. To be fair, African-Americans have to honestly ask themselves: Can we take part in the pageantry of a country that has never really been ours, and which, until very recently, maintained our social and political inferiority? Is assimilation possible? If so, is it desirable? And if not, then what?
Kaepernick himself was particularly ambivalent about this question. He is of mixed race, with an absent Black father and a White mother who put him up for adoption. He was raised in Wisconsin by an apparently loving and non-racist White family. But assimilation and the warm embrace create anxiety, and Kaepernick is clearly in search of the authenticity, the “creed” of really being Black. In 2016, he also sported an Afro.
On the other side, White fans perceive race (correctly) as a weapon used against them in all aspects of life: affirmative action, the “diversity” racket, White Guilt, White Privilege, etc. They thus seek (always unsuccessfully) to neutralize the subject with the promise of multi-racial American patriotism or silly euphemisms like “We don’t see race.” The teamwork and esprit de corps offers the promise to Whites of one institutions where race really won’t matter. Trump’s demand that those spoiled athletes just shut up and be patriotic was a kind of last stand of this implicit White identity.
Trump certainly didn’t seek to destroy the NFL when he yelled “You’re fired!” in Alabama. To the contrary, he sought to save football from itself. But the effect was something altogether different. White fans were already deeply, unconsciously troubled by the racial dynamic of the NFL. In fighting back, Trump revealed what was at stake. Fans saw the game with new eyes and found it unwatchable.
According to polling, NFL’s favorability rating dropped from 57 percent to 44 percent, from 68 to 45 percent among males. More males between the ages of 34 and 54 dissappove of the Legue than approve. A dire situation, to be sure. In 2017, ticket sales did not decline technically speaking, but that was illusionary. Some 75 percent of sales are seasons tickets, meaning that most revenue is baked in the cake. The real collapse in enthusiasm is expressed by scenes of sad, half-empty stadiums.
Yes, the NFL might be hope to salvage the situation with the kind of obligatory patriotism Trump gestured towards. But I suspect it’s far too late. The problems with the NFL are structural, racial, and spiritual, and no amount of flag-waving can overcome that.
What does it mean for a White man to paint his face, remove his shirt—perhaps spend hours boozing and gorging in parking lot before games—and cheer on Black athletes? What does it mean for the nerd element of fandom to spend late nights in front of glowing screens revising their “fantasy teams,” obsessing over the stats, injuries, and match-up potentials of various heavily tattooed men with criminal records?
At least an urban liberal squeeing about his vintage comic-book collection is living in a world of pure imagination. American Whites, or those from the declining middle class, spend the majority of their lives working jobs they don’t like simply to earn enough money to move away from dangerous, non-White neighborhoods where it is impossible to raise a family. They live their lives in recognition of racial reality … and then spend their luxury time retreating into racial fantasy. The stereotypical overweight and drunken fan is essentially outsourcing his identity and his fantasy life to Black athletes. (The film Big Fan, starring Patton Oswalt, was probably the most compelling and terrifying portrayal of this phenomenon.).
And the fan does this, paradoxically, from a position of superiority. After all, he’s the one paying money for athletes to entertain him. And while a select few players garner fame, wealth, and women, the vast majority will be left with broken bodies and the indifference of the masses. It’s a pattern as old as the Roman Coliseum, but the racial disparity between fan and player—enveloped in a national ideology of racial egalitarianism—gives it a new dynamic.
The more thoughtful sportswriters have often suggested something inherently exploitative about the fan-player relationship—and, to a great extent, they’re right. Robert E. Lee observed that slavery degrades both master and slave; in turn, fandom degrades both player and fan. The Black player sees himself as a kind of performing monkey, a high-paid slave who puts his body and ego on the line for overweight White fans who will call him abusive names if he drops a pass or blows a coverage (that is, if he makes the kinds of mistakes everyone makes everyday).
The fan simultaneously dehumanizes and idealizes the Black athlete. On the one hand, the athlete is a beast of burden, a commodity to be traded, wagered on, feted or laughed at depending on the situation. (By the time they’re sophomores in high-school, Black athletes have been scrutinized and quantified down to their 40-yard-dash time and hand size on recruiting Websites like Rivals.com.) On the other hand, the fan views the athlete as a hero and unreachable pinnacle of masculinity, as something more than a man.
This kind of ambivalence is volatile. And as seen by some ugly confrontations on the field, just beneath the mutual admiration between players and fans is an intense contempt.
The White fans who pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars on the tickets or merchandise to honor their favorite players would lock their doors if they saw them walking on the street. They would never allow a corn-rowed Black athlete into their homes, expect in the form of a commemorative oil painting.
Even fans call it the National Felons League, for good reason. While the country has become obsessed with male CEOs being too creepy or forward in asking subordinates out on dates, the NFL quietly employs players with multiple domestic violence arrests. Shortly before the 2018 Super Bowl, Malik McDowell of the Seattle Seahawks was caught on video taunting a female police officer after his arrest: “Bitch, I got lawyer money.”
A database from the eminently normie USA Today tracks football arrests; the result is an endless chronicle of DUI’s, gun charges, domestic violence, prostitutes, and drunken assaults. And the off-the-field lives of many major stars are disturbing to say the least. Michael Vick is probably the NFL’s most notorious ex-player, having been convicted of running a brutal dogfighting ring. Fans seem oddly more willing to overlook the fact that, following the 1999 Super Bowl, blood of a murder victim was found in the limousine of Baltimore Ravens legend Ray Lewis, who was only able to avoid a trial by testifying against his two companions. More recently, Lawrence Taylor, widely considered the greatest linebacker (if not the greatest defender) of all time, was accused of raping a 16-year-old runaway. He was released on probation, and registered as a sex offender, by claiming to have had consensual sex with an underage prostitute. Not surprisingly, Vince McMahon’s declaration that the XFL—an upstart, WWE-styled competition to the NFL—won’t hire felons is already being called, accurately, “racist.” ESPN announcers are unironically condemning it because it will make it difficult for the league to hire enough Blacks.
To be overly fair, part of the problem may be the effects of the game itself: convicted murderer Aaron Hernandez’s brain was already destroyed before he killed himself in prison at age 27. But mostly, it is simply the predictable effects of hiring ghetto thugs and handing them huge sums of money. It’s the same reason that most NFL players go broke only a few years after leaving the league, despite their lucrative salaries. It’s the result (again, highly predictable) of a high-time preference population given media adulation, money, power, resources, and the assurance of a largely consequence-free environment. Too many of them can’t keep from shooting themselves, let alone other people.
In criticizing the League in September, Trump effectively sided with the mostly White and Jewish owners over the players. It’s important to remember that the owners are the ones facilitating and excusing the players’ behavior. Jerry Jones, the colorful owner of the Dallas Cowboys—a kind of Trump of the NFL—is paradigmatic. The Cowboys don’t have the most criminal team by a long shot, but Jones is notorious for giving “second chances” to Black athletes who excel on the field. This began in the ’90s as a Michael Irwin-led team descended into criminal debauchery at the curiously named “White House” located in Valley Ranch, near the Cowboys practice facility. According to Jeff Pearlman, who wrote a book on the Cowboys’s 1990s excess,
The house … was rented under the name of receiver Alvin Harper and the new neighbors in an exclusively white, low-key community were 6-foot-5 inch, 300 pound African American men escorting an endless conveyor belt of large-breasted blondes. Nate Newton insists the White House was a haven for neither prostitution (“What did we need a prostitute for? Women laid down for us”) nor drugs (Never saw ’em), yet his take is disputed by myriad teammates and people in the know.
Other “pet projects” of Jerry Jones range from “Pacman” Jones, who has the endless rap sheet of the “gansta life,” to Greg Hardy, who was found guilty of assaulting his White girlfriend before getting off when she suspiciously failed to appear in court to testify, to various other Blacks connected to assault, gun charges, and drug use.
Jones was also one of the most vocal opponents of Colin Kaepernick’s protest … until he wasn’t. As late as August of 2017, Jones refused to sign Kaepernick and publicly announced,
I just feel so strongly that the act of recognizing the flag is a salute to our country and all of the people that have sacrificed so that we can have the liberties we have.
Cowboys’ coach Jason Garrett echoed his boss, talking about the “sacred” flag.
But when the pressure was on, the owner of “America’s Team” placated his money-makers. Days after Trump publicly encouraged owners to discipline their players, the Cowboys collectively took a knee before the game—eliciting a chorus of boos from fans. They then locked arms during the anthem itself. Jerry might hope that such a “comprise” will make the issue go away. But he ultimately legitimized the narrative of Black oppression, and might have even cemented “righteous kneeling” as a new pre-game tradition.
At his core, “Jerrah” expresses the quintessential mentality of the aging, conservative “cuck.” The hyper-patriotism is a mask worn by a billionaire who seeks to delicately navigate a collapsing society and industry. And at some level, he must recognize the absurd and untenable position he’s put himself in. For he isn’t just selling football game; he’s selling “America’s Team.” It’s a civic icon based on a nation of players who are criminally out of control and utterly alienated from sentiments like “God and Country.”
Just win, Jerry, while it lasts…
With few exceptions, all the truly great NFL quarterbacks have been White, and not just White, but Anglo and Germanic: Joe Montana, John Elway, Otto Graham, Roger Staubach, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, and more. And Whites are still overrepresented at the position. But the “golden boys” often obscure two important facts. First, Whites are tremendously underrepresented in the NFL and major colleges: Whites make up 65 percent of the U.S. population but only 30 percent of NFL players. Secondly, White athletes are often pigeon-holed into certain positions: Whites can be tight-ends, but only rarely wide-receivers; they can maybe play safety but never corner-back; a White running back can be a “good blocker” or “role player,” but not a starting tailback.
Over the last 15 years, the website “Caste Football” has put forth the provocative thesis that American football—from the NFL down to junior varsity—is captured by “group think.” There is an assumption of Black superiority, in terms of speed, agility, flexibility, and White athletes are never given the opportunity to excel. This thesis, no doubt, carries a kernel of truth, as “group think” infects every industry. And although it is politically incorrect, it is by no means as radically taboo as the alternative explanation: that Africans are genetically predisposed to excel at football. Deron Snyder of the Black webzine The Root gave the “caste thesis” a sympathetic hearing, precisely for this reason.
Blacks are not physically superior. If you believe that they are, you’ve only set yourself up for the devastating counterpunch that whites are mentally superior. Those blows of superiority and inferiority continue to hammer both sides of the racial divide. They must be fought ardently at all times. On and off the field.
Questions of “superiority” and “inferiority” ultimately miss the point. The issue is difference. And yes, Virginia, race is real. Gene pools are plastic to their environments, and over the millennia, races (that is, breeds or extended families) emerged, having adapted to their surroundings through natural selection. That races exist—and that some races might, by chance, be better adapted to the artificial environment of a football field—is simply an implication of Darwinian evolution.
In 1977, O.J. Simpson (then the star running back for the Buffalo Bills) remarked,
We are built a little differently, built for speed—skinny calves, long legs, high asses are all characteristics of blacks.
O.J. was right, at least about that. Vis-à-vis Whites and Asians, West Africans have
- longer legs
- narrower hips,
- lower centers of gravity,
- lower body fat,
- higher quantities of fast-twitch muscle tissue (useful for short bursts of speed),
- higher testosterone levels.
It is beyond naive to believe that such factors would not give Africans major advantages in football. Added to this, Blacks develop faster than Whites (who, in turn, mature faster than Asians). Black mothers have shorter gestation periods (39 weeks); Blacks babies tend to hold their heads up and sit up sooner in the crib; and Blacks experience puberty at a younger age. Developmental disparity has a major impact in determining which players get recruited for major colleges, and which go on to the next level.
No surprisingly, the paradigmatic PC scandal—in which a mainstream figure was denounced and personally destroyed for expressing an opinion—involved the anthropology of football.
In 1988, beloved commentator Jimmy “the Greek” Snyder observed, on Martin Luther King’s birthday, no less,
I’m telling you that the black is the better athlete . . . And he’s bred to be the better athlete because this goes all the way to the Civil WAR when, during the slave trading, the owner, the slave owner, would breed his big woman so that he would have a big black kid, see.
The huge uproar that resulted occurred precisely because everyone knew that “the Greek” was getting at the truth. And as nutrition, training, and technology reach their limits in allowing athletes to realize their potential, genetic factors are likely to become even more important going forward.
Among the bestselling NFL jerseys, White quarterbacks and tight ends (Carson Wentz, Rob Gronkowski, and Tom Brady, et al.) predominate—to a degree, no doubt, that embarrasses the league. Tim Tebow and Peyton Hillis, the rare White running quarterback and tailback who could actually compete, became the most popular players in the league almost overnight, before each of their careers crashed and burned. Such things demonstrate the yearning White fans have to root on White players—a yearning that will never be fulfilled in the foreseeable future. Put simply, the NFL is a Black league. It was not always a Black league, but it will be for the duration. So why should we even care?
An amusing and revealing trivia question: Who won the first Heisman Trophy? The answer is Jay Berwanger in 1935. He is almost completely unknown today. He didn’t attend Notre Dame or Michigan but the University of Chicago, whose athletic fields are most famous for being the sites for the development of the atomic bomb. Berwanger was also the first player ever taken in the NFL draft, but he elected not to go pro.
Only four years later, in 1939, UChicago President Robert Maynard Hutchins banned football outright, for utterly reactionary reasons: “In many colleges, it is possible for a boy to win 12 letters without learning how to write one.” The team returned in the ’60s, but in Division III, with athletes who could at least approximate the student body. President Hutchins was a curmudgeon, and a prophet of sorts. But even he could not envision what was to take place at universities over the next half-century—their transformation into entertainment industry.
The modern university system is a tremendous burden on society: behemoth institutions in which administrators outnumber instructors and students get saddled with lifelong debt in hopes of earning a golden ticket to the middle class. College football isn’t solely to blame for this trend, but it hasn’t helped either. And it makes a mockery of supposed “research institutions” and “colleges of the liberal arts” that act as government-subsidized minor leagues for the NFL.
Beginning in 2010, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill came under scrutiny after a football player tweeted about partying with a famous sports agent at a lavish Miami nightclub. The investigations uncovered the reality, both sad and hilarious, of life at a “big time” university: classes were effectively day-care sessions for 20-year-old illiterates; random payouts and favors were ubiquitous; so-called “tutors” literally did the reading and writing on behalf of players; and all of it operated through the African-American Studies Department.
The Carolina scandal can ultimately be laughed off. It is shocking only to the most naïve, and no one got hurt. The same cannot be said of the case involving the “Baylor Bruins,” an all-female “hostess” program for prized recruits at Baylor University. One young woman who joined this program in 2012, Elizabeth Doe, claims at least 52 rapes were committed by some 31 Baylor players over the course of four years. A telling quote from these allegations comes from Kendal Briles, an assistant football coach and son of former head coach Art Brile:
Do you like white women? Because we have a lot of them at Baylor, and they love football players.
Some of the alleged victims were female athletes in other sports, including a volleyball player who claims she was gang raped.
Baylor first attempted to get the case dismissed. When that failed, it reached a settlement with Elizabeth Doe. Two of the accused players await criminal trials. The head coach, along with his staff, was fired. Chancellor Ken Starr (yes, that Ken Starr) resigned under pressure. Needless to say, the football goes on.
How could anyone really expect such an appalling fiasco not happen somewhere? College athletes are in a legitimately unfair position of being pros who don’t get paid (at least not officially and regularly). And colleges compete with fringe benefits. And those benefits will include women.
But again, the deeper question is how football makes people act and think. For those fanatics at Baylor and Carolina, at stake was not just wins and loses and not just school pride. At stake was the myth of the “student athlete,” that of racial equality, and the necessity of presenting Southern schools as progressive and morally redeemed. Who wouldn’t fudge some numbers, pass money under the table, and look the other way as a few women get abused for such a righteous cause?
Throughout Middle America and the South, a football coach is a man upheld as a Patton of the gridiron: part field general, part strategic mastermind, part father figure, occasional pep-talker and bear-hugger. He must be serious and stern, only cracking a smile when carried off the field by his players or doused with Gatorade. The coach is an avatar of an old-school authoritarian with a warm heart, a figure millions of Whites instinctively admire. The fact that “Coach” is used as a kind of formal appellation (much like “Herr Professor Schmidt” or “President Reagan”) speaks to the reverence the profession commands.
In reality, coaches are closer to being babysitters or, yes, I’ll say it, plantation managers. And most are high-functioning morons: smart enough to understand a wish-bone offense and the intricacies of “Cover 2,” but dumb enough to be blissfully unaware of the absurdity of their profession and the terrible impact it has on society. In this regard, listening to Rex Ryan’s self-righteous burbling about Donald Trump offers a certain delight.
The “great” coaches—not the Rex Ryans but the legends and icons—possess the personality types of the modern politician: they balance the desire to win at all cost with the need to go with the PC flow; they nod to the values and mores of their White fans, while kowtowing to ownership or their schools’ “booster” societies. They are never leaders in the true sense of word.
Paul “Bear” Bryant—whose coaching career (1958-82) spanned Alabama’s transition from all-White to “integrated” to majority Black teams—is a classic example in this regard. Shortly before his death, Bryant claimed that he wanted to be remembered as the “Branch Rickey of football” (a reference to the Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager who brought Jackie Robinson into Major League Baseball). Such a statement can only be read as revisionist delusions of an dying man. Bryant never openly opposed segregation—never went against Governor George Wallace or Alabama’s White fans—despite the fact that he was the most popular man in the state at the time, and despite the fact that he actively wanted to recruit Black players. Alabama was late to integrate even for the Southeastern Athletic Conference, and Bryant is most remembered for his three National Titles in the 1960s won with all-White Teams.
On September 12, 1970, Bryant scheduled, at his own discretion, a game against the University of Southern California Trojans, an integrated team with a Black quarterback. Alabama was overmatched physically, and lost by three touchdowns (42-21). There are competing narratives about the event. The first is that a kind of culture clash—or race war—took place, in which the bright, integrated future traveled to the benighted Deep South, and won. The other narrative is more complicated. Bryant had already tried to recruit Black athletes and failed, due to the players’ own discomforts and pressure from the University. The USC game was thus an opportunity to prove to his fans the necessity of integration. In other words, it was football blackmail: Do you want to stay White? Or do you want to win? USC players reported that when Bryant went to shake hands with his USC counterpart, John McCay, he came with a beaming smile on his face: “John, I can’t thank you enough.” An apocryphal legend has it that Bryant brought USC running back Sam Cunningham into the Alabama locker room and presented him to his players: “Gentlemen, this is a football player.” Whatever the case, the game proved to be a symbolic turning point, for Alabama and all of college football. Dennis Royal’s 1969 University of Texas squad was the last White team to win a National Title. By 1971, Alabama would be integrated, followed by LSU and Ole Miss a year later.
It is precisely Bryant’s ambiguity that continue to make him a compelling and magisterial figure for millions of football fans. He became a “progressive” without actually risking anything. In turn, his demeanor and air—his grey and plaid suits and checkered and houndstooth fedoras—grant Bryant a proudly conservative presence, even more so than the flamboyant and déclassé figures associated with the battles against de-segregation. But such a persona ultimately rings hallow when tested. At least genuine leftists openly strove to transform society, institutions, marriage and the family. Bear Bryant wanted Black players in order to beat USC. In turn, fans’ adoration of the Great White Coach—a Bryant or Bowden or Saban—commanding an all-Black team represents the last gasp of a defeated people: At least we have our football!
Football was once a midwestern oddity and favorite sport of the Ivy League. Today, it lays claim to being “America’s Game” even more than the onetime “National Pastime,” baseball. Baseball is baseball everywhere (from Los Angeles to Mexico City to Tokyo), but “Canadian football” or “Australian football” are different games entirely. Thus, American football has emerged as a civic nationalism, indeed, one of the few things citizens of a multiracial and multicultural republic can claim to hold in common.
It is thus not surprising that the American military is now a prominent part of the NFL. The NFL has, in fact, dedicated the entire month of November to the U.S. military (“Salute To Service”), in which players and coaches add camouflage “flair” to the uniforms. (This comes after NFL Pink, formerly known as October, in which the NFL requires players to be decked out in girly gloves, towels, and cleats, ostensibly in support of breast cancer awareness.)
None of this is altruistic. Between 2012 and 2015, the Department of Defense spent more than $10 million on “marketing and advertising contracts with professional sports teams.” Among that, some $5.5 million of tax-payer funding went to 14 NFL teams. These contracts gave the military the right to present aircraft flyovers, unfurl enormous flags, and hold color-guard ceremonies and even enlistment campaigns at NFL games. (The DoD payouts to the NFL ended in 2016, after much criticism. The month-long “Salute to Service” continues.)
The military capitalizes on the goodwill generated by football as a communitarian public spectacle. In turn, the NFL has been able to maintain a perpetual “9/11” atmosphere, in which attending sports is synonymous with “supporting the troops.” Perhaps the NFL’s symbolic propaganda message is that it is, in fact, another branch of the military.
There are certainly traditionalist aspects to this connection between the American people, the military, and violent spectacle: in the conservative’s imagination, the military represents a culture of honor and discipline, just as the NFL is a space in which strength and manliness still mean something. But all of this is botched and turned into parody. The military wouldn’t embrace football if it didn’t see it as an opportunity for generating uncritical support for its overseas wars and sprawling industrial complex. And football, in turn, embraces war and the troops in a desperate attempt to cover over its own immense failings. In taking up the anthem controversy—and even suggesting the prospect of obligatory patriotism—Donald Trump was hardly questioning any of this. He sought, in fact, to reinforce the martial quality of football—and, you could say, this football quality of the military. The ultimate outcome will be quite the opposite, as both industries are experiencing collapse in their public legitimacy.
We must ask now how these impulses towards manliness, power, and danger might head might be expressed in football’s absense? Football lays claim to being the most badass of sports: crushing hits, terrifying injuries, bodies being laid out on the ground—all of this set out for your amusement. And unlike boxing or mixed martial arts, football is a war game, with trenches, helmets, field generals, battles for territory, long bombs, and Hail Marys. Liberals traditionally dislike football for these reasons—it offends their desire to be both individualistic and cooperative.
Football fandom also appeals to traditionally “male” activities such as eating greasy food, hanging out with “the boys,” and drinking beer. The purpose of the “man cave,” after all, is to watch sports. And unlike playing video games or watching art films, it doesn’t carry any effeminate connotations. But the manliness of football is precisely why watching it is so insidious. Football offers a substitute manliness, quite literally.
The right side of the brain possesses “mirror neurons,” which help us vicariously experience the actions of others. As one researcher described it,
This phenomenon allows a feeling of connection, and community without verbal communication or the need to directly talk to the pro athlete who just won the World Series with a grand slam.
“Mirroring” is, no question, an essential part of life. Empathy and vicarious experiences allow us to learn from others and enjoy story-telling by projecting ourselves onto the protagonist. But intently watching a game is an experience of the hyper-real, similar to having sex by watching Internet porn. On a basic level, the mind doesn’t grasp the difference. High-Definition images become a virtual reality, and you get off just the same.
The benefits of a “tough” sport—strength, courage, comradeship with a team—come from playing it. Simply watching it, and engaging in activities which make you weaker, makes you a consumer of toughness. I hesitate to extend the metaphor too far … But it would be like saying seducing women is the peak of masculinity, and then spending all day watching pornography with a group of your friends.
The System doesn’t want us to do; it wants us to watch. It doesn’t want us to create but consume; to watch porn, not make love or produce familes. All experience is to be moderated; all value, monetized and commodified; and all community, reduced to brands. Fandom itself is an expression of the loss at the heart of the modern world. Men want to fight and win, be part of a gang, sacrifice for glory, and be rewarded with fame and women. (Even nerds want this, as they gravitate to videogames of war, conquest, chivalry, and violence.) “Fandom” is the collective identity the system is willing to offer us.
Our real task is to create a new culture. And the only way to do that is to just do it (to borrow corporate slogan from sports world). This means spending time with friends and family, playing (not just watching) sports, getting strong, participating in meet-ups and activism, and building institutions.
Fandom transforms manly impulses—the desire for community, the attraction to strength and accomplishment, the wish for spectacle—into weaknesses. And in so doing, transforms White men into sources of revenue for people who despise them.
So be a man. Stop being a fan.