As a non-white guy, no other sport — no other institution— seems to hint so clearly at the legacy of slavery as the NFL. But as a non-black guy, I resist seeing slavery in football because black Americans embrace the sport in large numbers, and I don’t often hear them voice this themselves.
For me, the NFL appears like one of those double-picture illusions that switch between, say, a young woman and a pickle-nosed old hag. The double-picture that I see switches between a kind of capitalist re-enactment of slavery, and the dominant mainstream picture: an ultra-nationalist celebration of American military imperialism, to which no dissent is tolerated.
The NFL, I believe, self-consciously biases the picture so that we all tend to see a patriotic militarism in the game, sending F-16’s streaking over the stadiums while “our men and women in uniform” unfurl a God-sized flag over the battlefield. The NFL does this, I believe, because it knows we all must be united in the defense of our country, and unity is great for the business of football.
But, as an Asian guy in America, this military image of the NFL is not a particularly pleasant picture either. American military pomp brings to my mind a modern history of war atrocities and colonial subjugation targeting the people of Asia primarily through indiscriminate carpet bombing of civilians, a history that is no less brutal or lethal than its history of slavery. Its only saving grace is that it was perpetrated outside of this country, and thus mostly out view of most Americans. But as an Asian in America, I cannot help but draw the connection between the NFL and an ideology of imperialism.
This imperial ideology — an insistence that American firepower has limitless jurisdiction in world affairs — is happening again now in Asia, as America casually threatens North Korea with total and infernal destruction, and warns China that it may be next in line. And it’s not as if this began with Trump. Take Obama’s “pivot to Asia,” which was little more than shifting every available warship to the South China Sea with such urgency that we couldn’t even keep ourselves from crashing into cargo ships.
So while the slavery image of football brings me great unease, the military image of football feels even more alienating, as I feel only Asians, along with perhaps Muslims and Native Americans — insignificant as we are — could really understand this. For example, it is not at all a pleasant experience for me to watch a B-52 Stratofortress make a guest appearance at an NFL game as both black and white fans lose their collective patriotic shit. James Baldwin wrote in his essay Stranger in the Village that he, a black man, could never look upon the Chartres Cathedral in Paris and see what a white man sees; but, conversely, a white man could never experience Chartres in the way a black man does. The B-52 flyover is my Chartres.
What Kaepernick has been doing is great, and he should be universally supported on the basis of American constitutionalism as well as universal principles of human rights. He’s a man who holds an ethically sound belief and is doing what he must to politicize it. That he faces such resistance only suggests that he is making progress and in the right direction.
What Trump said, although vile, was equally important, because he’s that one old bastard with enough senility, authentic racism, and military service avoidance to speak to the NFL owners and fans in the undisguised parlance of white supremacy. Their applause and celebration of Trump’s depravity was terrifying yet also for me validating, as it reveals that these racists view the NFL the same way I do, and so I’m not crazy. To both me and some of these racist fans, the NFL appears as a modern-day nostalgia fantasy for the past eras of institutionalized subjugation of black people. What was Trump calling out to them for, after all? Two things: for white owners to punish a black player for daring to speak out, and to increase the brutality that the mostly-black players (70%) must endure.
And while apologists may reply that plenty of white players would suffer from more on-field brutality as well, there’s no denying that from the coaching class on up to management and ownership, it‘s almost all white, and the kind of white Trump cares most about:
And that owner, they don’t know it. They don’t know it. They’re friends of mine, many of them.
Roger Goodell may or may not be a good man, but he puts on a pretty good show of being blandly decent. His response to Trump is telling:
The NFL and our players are at our best when we help create a sense of unity in our country and our culture.
A “sense of unity.” Not actual unity, just the sense of it, a mere belief that we are one. To hell with Goodell’s corporatized sidespeak. What Trump is forcing us to do, through sheer senility, is to abandon these false beliefs and confront what the NFL really is: a more or less accurate reflection of a deeply divided nation that refuses to learn from its own history. The lesson we must and will learn out of this is that one side is right, the other side must be defeated, and a cheerful sense of patriotic compromise and negotiation cannot delay this reckoning forever.
As an Asian guy in America, I am relieved this reckoning is finally happening, because we Americans too easily plaster over serious racial problems through forced celebrations of our imperial mandate.