photos: San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker Elie Harold (58), quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7), and free safety Eric Reid (35) kneel in protest during the playing of the national anthem. Photo by Kirby Lee-USA Today sports.

The physical is political

Viewpoints: February is Superbowl month. Should you cheer or protest? Yes.

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“I have no respect for Colin Kaepernick. He probably has no respect for me, that’s his choice. My choice is that I like this country, I respect our flag, and I don’t see all the atrocities going on in this country that people say are going on.” — Mike Ditka, Hall-of-Fame football coach.

In blue skies, the war planes will fly over the assembled masses, heads tilting back, chins opening, mouths shaping silent words of awe.

In asphalt parking lots, the congregation will sip the sacramental Schlitz.

In homes, after the feast, sitting in plush leather pews, the families will watch on flat-screen altars the number-anointed men play The Game, measured in yards and territory taken on a pastoral green canvas.

Before the game, the national hymn of consecration.

The masses will stand, removing hats— for how better to see us, dear gods— crossing hands over hearts as the rockets in red glare, the bombs bursting in air, the flags doing their waving right there.

Men with tight haircuts and camo jackets will hold those flags while kids in the stands eat corn-chip sacraments that drip greasy orange nacho globs onto shirts produced in Caribbean free-trade zones by Chinese temporary foreign workers.

But stop. Don’t look so close. Apply the gaussian blur to this high-def scene. There is no complexity here. No nuance. Believe.

All you have to do is believe. Just believe.

With clear eyes and pure hearts, believe the game is as good and true as the starry flag.

For you are deep in the Church of American Secularism and Entitlement. You are among the converted. We are the converted.

See, the greatest trick sport ever pulled was to convince us it stands for pure goodness, without agenda or complexity, painting the American experiment with the same brush. It's a seductive idea in a complicated world full of struggle and hardship when, in truth, sport is a ritual that rehearses and consecrates a political view far deeper than Democrat or Republican, and more than a little problematic. To speak otherwise is to break the spell.

Don’t break the spell. Not with the fullthroated choir singing together, swaying in rapturous harmony. Don’t break the spell.

He broke the spell. Colin Kaepernick, quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers and heretic, he broke the spell.

After a summer punctured repeatedly by amateur videos of police officers killing innocent and often non-threatening African-Americans, Kaepernick couldn’t stand for it. So in a preseason game and every game since, he sat (and then kneeled) while the anthem played.

And now, a season away from that summer, the congregation unites in Houston to cap the season of their discontent, a season that saw Americans choose to #MakeAmericaGreatAgain rather than make #BlackLivesMatter for once.

It wasn’t the first time an athlete chose to protest during the anthem (see also: Tommie Smith, John Carlos).

And like those that came before, it elicited reactions swift and polarized.

In defiance of the #loveitorleaveit crowd represented by legendary meathead Mike Ditka quoted above, Megan Rapinoe, member of the national women’s soccer team, took a knee for her LGBTQ community. At her next game, the opposing team played the anthem before she was on the field.

Even Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, nicknamed “Notorious R.B.G.” for her championing of minority causes, called it “dumb and disrespectful.”

Dismissal is understandable if you believe sport is trivial distraction, existing in some kind of magical realm outside the politica—an ahistorical phenomenon.

But that couldn’t be more wrong.

Sport, in form, content, and origins, is a political act, a rehearsal and consecration of capitalism, imperialism, and economic conquest.

‘The past is never dead. It's not even past.’
It all began in the mid-1800s at Britain’s public schools, the training grounds for the bureaucrats and clerks of empire.

Sure, before this there were games.

There were dances and feats of strength.

Rich men on fast horses chased small foxes into earthen holes to be ripped apart by obsequious dogs. And there was a form of football played in the open spaces between villages.

These activities were small in scale. Because everything was small in scale. And much of it the church and other authorities condemned as ungodly frivolity distracting men from their daily toil and hard work.

Until teachers needed to control their socially superior charges. (Schoolboy riots were regular events.)

Until the church saw the perfect vehicle for Christian sermons.

Until the wealthy fathers worried their sons were growing effeminate.

Then all at once educational reformers invited sports into schools, while organizations like the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) formed to “... put Christian principles into practice by developing a healthy ‘body, mind, and spirit.’”

They called it Christian Muscularity.

To this day, every time an athlete leans into a microphone to speak of soothing homilies about humility and hard-work, you’re listening to a sermon rooted in Christian Muscularity.

Of course, the games were (and are) fun, releasing endorphins for participant, dramatic tension for spectator. Other classes bought in for their own reasons.

But they didn’t define the basic forms.

Those forms were defined by the holy alliance mentioned above.

Take football (please?).

Are you ready for some football?
Soccer, football (American, Australian, Canadian), and rugby come from the same folk origin. When adopted by those elite British schools, each evolved a different version to fit their unique values.

Rugby, the game, was named after Rugby, the school. Rugby, the school, was favoured by the sons of the emerging merchant and manufacturing class (as opposed to the landed gentry). Rugby, the game, therefore featured the aggressive grasping and a certain anything-goes barbarism.

Rugby, the game, migrated to Yale, the school, by way of McGill. Yale was the first choice of the sons of emerging American merchants and manufacturing families.

And here the game became what we now know of as football, about gaining territory by strategic use of force and violence.

Conjectural? Sure. But it’s conjecture well supported in Varda Burstyn’s book, The Rites of Men, and echoed by another theorist (David Meggesy), who writes that football became a “celebration of territorial conquest by physical violence.”

Sound familiar? It might to those right now at Standing Rock in North Dakota.

The cult of the warrior
Burstyn argues that sport also invented “hypermasculinization.”

This is the idea that men must be physically strong but emotionally stoic, unless the emotion is anger, in which case we allow it, even if violent—especially when violent in service of a higher goal.

That goal might be defensive in nature—and we’re thankful for it in the form of armies and police forces that protect—other times it’s aggressive in nature, imperialistic in nature, racial, sexist and sadistic in nature.

Unfortunately, that’s normalized, too. Burstyn calls this the cult of the warrior.

Which brings us back finally to Kaepernick and his peaceful protest against the abuse of power by (largely) white men on police forces.

And to Beyoncé.

Months before Kaepernick took a knee, Beyoncé played the halftime show at last year’s Super Bowl, singing for the first time one of her most political songs, “Formation,” backed by dancers wearing Black Panther-inspired berets and black leather suits.

Afterward, those dancers held up fists that echoed the black power salute by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the Olympics in 1968, and they held up a sign that read: “Justice for Mario Woods,” a black man shot by San Francisco police officers.

Was Beyoncé saying we shouldn’t play sports? No. Is Kaepernick?

No. Am I? No. I love sports.

But when we recognize that all modern sport is a rehearsal and consecration of a system that is not always fair and just, perhaps then we can empathize with those who use it to protest that system.

So as those war birds fly overhead as the congregation belts out the national song and one man kneels in protest, perhaps it’s more sporting to understand these are all political acts and this may be precisely the right place for protest.

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  • Jax Gullible
    commented 2017-02-03 00:19:40 -0800
    Excellent article, Geoff. It was helpful to see some of the theory and history of how contemporary Northern (male) sports got to where they are, and with empathy to those that love them in spite of/because of it. I was worried in the top half that I wouldn’t see the critique of male supremacy, but good man, you brought it together. Well written and evocative. Keep them coming.
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