By David K. Shipler
American football is a metaphor. It rewards violence but depends on canny brainpower. Its plays look fairly simple from a distant stadium seat or a television screen, but beneath the raw muscle are intricate tactics and mental tricks, sometimes in the players’ taunts you cannot hear, often in the feints and ploys you cannot perceive. If you could see the quarterback’s eyes faking one way while he’s about to throw the other, or if you could watch every receiver at once and comprehend the dance steps and glances each uses to deceive the defense, you would appreciate more richly the complex game that enthralls so many Americans and earns such fortunes for players and owners.
None of that makes it a very civilized sport, however. A century from now, if human progress were inevitable, history would look back at football with something of the same revulsion now visited on the ancient bloodletting of gladiators in the Roman Colosseum. Not just the obvious physical damage to tendons and limbs, but moreover, the stealthy destruction of brains. Repeated hits to the head, long dismissed by the mercenary National Football League as medically insignificant, are finally acknowledged as causes of chronic traumatic encephalopathy later in life. Symptoms can include impaired thinking, depression, impulsiveness, short-term memory loss, substance abuse, and suicidality.
A study two years ago found that 40 percent of retired NFL players had evidence of traumatic brain injury. Last year, after lawsuits and public humiliation, the NFL finalized a settlement with players that has paid over $431 million to date. (The league even has a website devoted to the terms.) And, as every football fan knows, team owners voted in 2013 to impose a 15-yard penalty and a possible fine for leading with the head, whether on defense or offense. As every football fan also knows, referees are inconsistent in making that call.
Once the studies were in and the NFL conceded the harm being done, additional research finding brain damage in high school and college players as well led to predictions that the sport would dry up as parents refused to let their kids go out for football. But the number playing in high school, at 1,112,251 in 2015-16, dropped by only 25,503 the following year. And the number of schools with teams grew by 52, from 14,047 to 14,099. “Football remains the No. 1 participatory sport for boys at the high school level by a large margin,” the National Federation of State High School Associations reported, followed by track and field, then basketball, baseball, and soccer.
As metaphor, football satisfies some yearning for a world whose complexities are eventually resolved in a pageant of brute strength (cleverly applied) in which one side actually wins. No nuanced ambiguities take us into uncertainty. No wispy hopes tease us into imagining that somehow after the clock has run out the apparent loser will emerge victorious. No wishy-washy, feel-good, socially conscious, diplomatic fudging continues indefinitely without solving the problem. But no outright warfare erupts, either. Violence alone does not win games. There are rules. There are standards of conduct, technology on the sidelines, careful thinking, intelligence briefings, and flexibility of tactic. And in the end, posturing and rhetoric aside, you have to perform on the field, in full view, leaving no doubt about whether you have succeeded or failed. This is not necessarily the case in politics or foreign affairs or at the workplace. If you appreciate the very human internal tension between beastly instincts and cerebral calculation, football seems the right combination.
Now, in the professional National Football League, we see all the moneyed team owners adding to the metaphor a bizarre affirmation of the fakery that now prevails in real-life America. Pretending to love their flag (but obviously not the freedom for which it stands), they are constructing a cardboard façade of patriotism by deciding unanimously to fine teams whose players, if on the field, refuse to stand for the national anthem. One wonders if the owners think their fans are all jingoistic pseudo-patriots who adore the bullying of that champion of fantasy, President Trump. He had raged at the players, most of them black, who had “taken a knee” during the anthem to protest police killings of unarmed African-Americans. Indulging his autocratic instincts, Trump has now praised the owners’ decision and suggests that maybe players who stay off the field during the anthem “shouldn’t be in this country.”
NFL fat cats take note: A lot of your fans are citizens with a different patriotic reflex. They recognize your new rule as anti-patriotism, because what Makes American Great Again and Again are its freedoms to speak, to assemble, to seek a redress of grievances. That is what the quarterback Colin Kaepernick was doing when he began to kneel during the anthem, a truly patriotic gesture that has cost him his career so far. No pro team will sign him.
Of course the First Amendment, which preserves these rights, restricts what government can do, and the NFL as a private entity can legally deprive its employees of their speech when they’re on the job. But kneeling is the perfect gesture of respect for the promises that stand behind the symbols of the anthem and the flag. To kneel is to show deference—not to the tune or the lyrics but to the freedoms the song and the flag represent.
When players first began to kneel, I was suddenly taken back to the Soviet Communist period, when on Constitution Day in Moscow, marked annually in December, pro-democracy dissidents led by Andrei Sakharov would gather in Pushkin Square to honor the noble (and empty) promises of freedom that were articulated in the Soviet constitution by standing silently and removing their hats. That’s all they did: no placards, no chants, no verbal demands. Just a gesture of respect for high ideals, unfulfilled. If you bumped up against one of the beefy KGB agents standing about watching, you felt as if you’d connected with a tree trunk. After a short while in this reverent demonstration, the dissidents put their hats back on and went home.
Nothing changed. Will anything change in America?