Football in America — How We (Don’t) Talk About Race

Yes, the NFL is to blame. Yes, blame us all. But I think the time is right for us to think about how sports fit into our culture on a deeper level. I want to talk about how I think many white people in the US think about African American men who play sports.

The scandals in football are still going on. They might be getting better. The way people in the U.S. talk about race in sports talk is both interesting and sad to me. We as a society are too afraid to talk about race in a serious and direct way, so we hide and filter them through things like the OJ trial, Donald Sterling’s dreck, and the crimes of Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson.

There is an interesting fact about how culture is made: in theatre and movies, made-up people (fictional characters) act out real situations, while in sports, real people (who are themselves) act out made-up situations (playing a game according to rules). In either case, it’s exciting. As it was for the Greeks before us and the Mayans before them, and as it is for all cultures, these cultural productions were and are ways to talk about and solve problems and questions in society. It’s like one big Kabuki play, with careful choreography and a story that never ends.

When sports figures do something egregious, even if it’s not more egregious than things that happen every day all over the country, it leads to hand-wringing and indirect public discussion. From Gloria Ladson-Billings to Dave Zirin, there are some great bloggers who share their thoughts on domestic violence and child abuse. Yes, the NFL is to blame. Yes, blame us all. But I think the time is right for us to think about how sports fit into our culture on a deeper level. I want to talk about how I think many white people in the US feel about black men who play sports.

Let’s be clear: America was built with stolen black labour and was built on stolen land. Slavery is written into the very core of who we are. And the history of violence is not over. It is still going on when police act like they did in Ferguson, when people are hungry and poor, and when there are huge differences in health care based on race. It is also clear in our schools and prisons. White supremacist ideas have been around since the beginning of time. Shakespeare shows this when the island boss Prospero calls his captive Caliban a slave, a half-demon, and a monster, but also tells his daughter, “We can’t miss him. He makes our fire, brings us wood, and does other things that help us.”

Whites only made money when black people worked. Fear of black strength, sexuality, and aggression was also common. From “The Tempest” to “Birth of a Nation” and “lynchings” to “school closings” and “suspension rates,” white America felt it had to control and repress the “savage,” dangerous, and scary black male body. In fact, George Zimmerman’s desire to shoot a black teenager who seemed to be walking in a neighbourhood where he didn’t “belong” is just a clear example of this fear. White violence is always okay because white people are afraid of black violence or even of getting back at them one day.

Then there’s football. What’s strange is that the strong, aggressive black man is exactly what white America fears, what makes us lock up a record number of black men, and what gives us nightmares. Yet, the strong, aggressive black man is put on the football field for our entertainment. Inside the arena, African-American men get a strong message about what they shouldn’t do, like act out, be aggressive, or break the rules.

For the entertainment of the ruling class, the Romans forced their prisoners to fight to the death in coliseums. Understand that those whose weapons against the Roman government had been taken away had to fight each other in a deadly show. Until the end. Every Sunday, we get together to cheer, bark, and howl at another violent show. A lot of white men in America show off their egos by acting tough, drinking, and throwing things at football games or at the TV.

And yet, these African-American men are looked up to and feared, even though they were given fewer chances to succeed and dreams of a career in the NFL. The (white) men who run the game and make billions from it are very careful with them. And it begins a long time before the pros. This happens in college, high school, and even younger.

Jessica Luther writes about how colleges and universities use football to make money while hiding sexual and other crimes. And when that training spills over onto the football field, the fans shake their heads and get angry.

Even if they die from fake head injuries caused by the staged violence, the football players will do their job and keep us entertained. But we’re mad at them. And get away with nothing.

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