Sport and social control

Dear President Trump,

This morning on my walk I was thinking about a comment I read or heard sometime in the last several months about how the Chinese government was confident that mainland Chinese citizens would grow weary of coverage of the protests in Hong Kong and would soon be entranced again by their TV programs and sports teams. I wish I could remember who said this in what context, but I definitely remember the chillingly matter of fact tone of the statement. Basically, it was simply a given that the citizens of China are so entrained to be engaged with and get their meaning from programming fed to them by the Government that there was no concern about the sparks coming from Hong Kong igniting anything significant on the mainland.

It was the sports angle that especially snagged me this morning and it led me to wonder about the real motivations for quashing the protest of police violence against Black people that Colin Kaepernick started in August 2016. Newsweek ran a piece late last year detailing the basic timeline of the protests and Kaepernick’s career after he left the 49er’s, ticking through the events with no interpretation — “just the facts, ma’am, just the facts.” Interestingly, other coverage from summer 2016 through fall 2017 shows that during this time support for the protests grew within the football community despite (and likely to some extent, because of) your antagonistic Tweeting about it. It was clear that football rejected the bogus claim that the protests were disrespectful of veterans and the flag as the NFL’s official position was supportive, most of the team owners were supportive, and increasing numbers of players, both Black and White, were participating in protests.

But then, bam! in May 2018 the NFL changed course and decided to ban all on-field protests with all but one of the team owners voting in support of the new policy. The Newsweek article divulges nothing about what might have been behind this decision and the other sources I found were equally unhelpful.

My sense is that the obvious motivations for stopping the protests include: 1) Kaepernick and others’ quiet kneeling during the national anthem was dignified and it held up a mirror to the country that more powerfully showed us the violence and prejudice driving police violence towards Black people than angry chants or Tweets ever could; 2) the protest was originated by a Black man and largely supported by his Black teammates and all of them were bucking the social order and claiming the right to protest on behalf of themselves and their community, and 3) the owners became worried that the continued overt politicization of football would hurt their bottom lines as fans started boycotting games.

But I think there’s way more to it. Consider the following questions: What if the protests and the support for them had been allowed to continue? What if all those stake holders had persisted and insisted that principle was more important than money? What might this have done for and to the national conversations about race and police brutality towards Black people? How might the legions of football fans who don’t want to see real life (and politics) intersecting with their game have responded if they had to get used it, had to see their favorite players, supported by their teams and the league, taking a knee over and over in support of justice?

Yes, the money was a central issue, for sure. But my sense is that somebody in the shadows figured out that letting these protests continue and letting the NFL’s initially strong support of their players remain in place was risking the social order that keeps people of color disenfranchised and afraid to be out in public while Black or Brown. No, much better to keep sports just plain old sports, to keep sports “pure entertainment” – there’s way more money to be made, and critically, way more minds way more easily kept numb.

May we be safe to exercise our right to peaceful protest.
May we be willing to dig beneath the surfaces.
May we care about everyone’s health and well-being.
May we not make peace with systems that silence and oppress.

Tracy Simpson

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