The NFL and Heroes

August 21, 2017

By Zoltan Zigedy/Greg Godels

The cheapest currency in the US is the award of ‘hero’. At a time noted for its pervasive corruption, moral slack, and self-regard, the shapers of opinion search far and wide for acts of atypical goodness that can be heralded as heroic, acts that might paint an inspired picture in these sordid times. 

   The bar for doing-good has been set so low that simply doing what you do or are supposed to do earns hero status: a fireman rescues a dog and becomes a media hero; a dog rescues a fireman and also becomes a hero. 

   Really?

   In more heroic times, the standard set for hero status was much higher.

   A hero should be someone who stands up for those whose voices are not heard; a hero ought to be a person casting personal interest aside to confront a bully.

   I thought about this question when I saw a picture of a young African American couple mourning the loss of Heather Heyer, the victim of a brutal attack in Charlottesville, Virginia. Because she was standing against the forces of injustice when her life was taken, isn’t she a hero by any standard?

   I was reminded of another young woman, Rachel Corrie, who was killed in Israel while standing for justice for Palestinians. Isn’t she a hero? Should we not hold her memory close and tell others of her heroism?

   Perhaps measured by different standards, I would count Colin Kaepernick worthy of hero stature as well. While he has not given his life for the cause of racial justice, he risked his career in professional football to make a statement against institutional racism-- especially persistent police violence against Black people-- before millions of people. As part of the National Football League elite, Kaepernick stepped far over the close line of propriety set by the Neanderthals who own and administer the sport that captures the worst elements of public life in the US. If brutal, bloody public entertainments in arenas became a symbol of decadent Rome, then surely the Sunday celebrations of violence and their accompanying mass hysteria in stadia serve to celebrate the decay of public life in our own US empire.

   Because Kaepernick decided to forego the vulgar pre-game ritual of mindless patriotism and slavish conformity of fall Sundays, he has brought down the ire of the man-child “sportsmen” who own the NFL and its teams. This group of privileged white businessmen enjoy the financial benefits of a sport constructed from base sentiments of aggression and dominance. The sport’s creative directors have understood the value of connecting untempered violence with an equally base and artificial loyalty to a wholly constructed collective-- a “team” -- assembled from entirely disparate parts. Unmistakably, they have successfully replicated the centuries-old attachment of martial sacrifice and ignorant allegiance to an ensemble of vapid symbols. By scorning the NFL’s ritual and, in the minds of many, the symbolic pledge of unexamined loyalty to the national warmongers, Kaepernick and a handful of other African American players have loosened the emotional glue that holds the entire sordid artifice together. 

   To Kaepernick’s credit, his anti-racist gesture attacked the most vulnerable link in the chain holding the NFL together, the explicit worship of blind, unfounded loyalty to team and country: the national anthem. Kaepernick chose to protest police violence against Black people by refusing the long-established custom of standing while the national anthem is played.

   That the owners understood this relationship between cheap patriotism and team devotion was demonstrated by the tawdry exploitation of the death in combat of Pat Tillman. Anyone engaged in the NFL industry would likely notice that for all the flag waving, war glorification, and exalted patriotism exhibited at football games, there was a scarcity of volunteers emerging from NFL ranks for the past two decades’ many wars. Owners, administrators, sportswriters, players, and hangers-on were seldom inspired to enlist or offer up their own sons or daughters. So, when Pat Tillman turned his back on his lucrative player contract and joined the Army, NFL royalty jumped at the opportunity to associate NFL warrior-talk with the actual sacrifice of a member of their tough-guy community. Tillman was celebrated far and wide, stadium to stadium, as the NFL role model. And when he was killed in Afghanistan, the tributes and honors grew even more. The entire NFL basked in the sun reflected by Tillman’s heroism. But when Tillman’s death was exposed as a result of friendly fire, when his mother revealed that Tillman had grown vocally critical of the war, the NFL decided that Tillman was not the kind of hero that benefited the interests of the NFL. Consequently, the NFL is left with no “heroes” from the US’s unending wars. Tillman became our hero and not theirs.

   Not only are the NFL owners embarrassing chicken hawks, but they are rapacious, predatory capitalists as well. They have parlayed extraordinary popularity into an economic entity that guarantees increasing profit and asset value, but with absolutely no risk, a secure status even better than that enjoyed by the megabanks. Since teams are merely franchises granted by NFL nobility, much of the real asset value resides in the infrastructure, the stadia, which is largely paid for out of public funds-- not from the pockets of ticket holders or fans, but from the general public. Up until 2015, the NFL was an unincorporated, nonprofit association paying no taxes, though the teams pay taxes on their profits.

   And just in case fans would note that they are paying for the stadia and recognize that owners add nothing and are of no genuine use, Congress has ordained that public ownership will never be an option.

   Incredibly, an industry with 70% Black players refuses employment to a proven, competent African American player because he uses a pre-game gesture to draw attention to injustices against Blacks. Of course, that shameful response should come with little surprise since the arrogant white owners have a long history of racial insensitivities, if not bald-faced racism. Long after most ugly stereotypes were banished from acceptance, owners thought that Black quarterbacks were insufficiently intelligent to lead a professional team. African American head coaches and management was nearly non-existent until the League was shamed into adopting the “Rooney rule,” which obligated teams to interview Black applicants for open coaching positions, a pathetic public relations-induced gesture. 

   Of course, the owners see the players as little more than high-priced chattel. As knowledge of the severe, debilitating, often mortal effects of football violence became widespread, the owners did everything to suppress the facts. 

   While Colin Kaepernick is blacklisted from playing in the NFL, others have taken up his cause and the cause of justice for African Americans. Richard Sherman has been outspoken and his teammate Michael Bennett has followed Kaepernick’s example by remaining seated during the playing of the national anthem. Bennett has vocally called out white players to join the protest. Several white teammates have shown support for his action, though none have remained seated. Hopefully, some will show some courage and join the protest, especially some of the hyper-salaried, elite white quarterbacks who usually identify closely with the owners. That will make a difference.

    I urge all to sign the online petition/pledge circulated by MoveOn.org calling for a boycott of the NFL in support of Colin Kaepernick. With fan interest waning last year, the NFL is sensitive to a decline in its fan support.Greg Godels (Zoltan Zigedy)
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