The football scandals have not played out. They may just be heating up. What fascinates and dismays me is the way we talk about race in America through sports chatter. We are a society that is deathly afraid of having race conversations seriously and straight-up so we suppress and filter them through metaphorical moments -- the OJ trial, the Donald Sterling dreck, the Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson crimes.
There is an interesting truth about cultural production: theater (and film) involves constructed people (fictional characters) doing real things (acting out a drama); while sports involves real people (being themselves) doing constructed things (playing a game according to rules). There is excitement in either case. As with the Greeks before us, as with the Mayans, as with all cultures, these cultural productions were and are ways to discuss and work out questions and issues of the society. It is one big Kabuki play, carefully choreographed and endlessly fascinating.
When sports figures do something egregious, though it is no more egregious than actions that are happening all over the country every day, it becomes an occasion for hand-wringing and public discussion, at least indirect discussion. There are some excellent bloggers who are forwarding the domestic violence and child abuse reflections, from Gloria Ladson-Billings to Dave Zirin. Yes, blame the NFL. Yes, blame us all. But I think the moment calls for us to consider some more fundamental cultural framing of sports. What I particularly want to focus on is how I think many white people in the US regard African-American men in sport.
Let's be clear: America was founded on stolen land and built with stolen black labor. The reality of slavery is inscribed into the very center of our identity. And the violence of this history is not over. It is ongoing in the police actions such as we saw in Ferguson; it is present in hunger and poverty and atrocious health disparities based on race; it is evident in our schools and our prisons. White supremacist ideology goes back to the beginning, here expressed by Shakespeare in The Tempest, as the island boss Prospero describes his captive Caliban as a slave, a semi-devil, a monster, but also reminds his daughter that, "we cannot miss him; he does make our fire, fetch in our wood, and serves in offices that profit us."
Black labor was key to white profit. And so was fear of black strength, sexuality, and aggression. From The Tempest to Birth of a Nation, from lynchings to school closings and suspension rates, white America felt it had to control and repress the perceived savage, the dangerous and frightening black male body. Indeed, George Zimmerman's impulse to shoot a black teenager who appeared to be walking in a neighborhood where he didn't "belong" is just a graphic expression of this fear. White violence is always justified by a fear of black violence -- or even fear of one day facing black retribution.
But then we have football. What is so curious here is that the very thing white America fears, the very thing that leads us to lock up a record number of black men, the very nightmare that lurks in our subconscious -- the strong, aggressive black man -- is put on the football field for our entertainment. The powerful message to African-American men about what they may not do -- to act out, to be aggressive, to transgress -- is lavishly rewarded inside of arena.
The Romans compelled their captives to fight to the death in coliseums for the pleasure of the ruling class. Understand it: those whose means of violence against the Roman state had been seized had to act out a deadly spectacle clashing with one another. To the death. We gather each Sunday to cheer and bark and howl at another violent spectacle. A huge number of white men in America act out their male egos by posturing and drinking and throwing things at the football stadium or in front of the TV.
And yet these African-American men, offered diminished pathways to success and given dreams of a career in the NFL, are idolized and feared. They are handled very carefully by the (white) men who are making billions off of the game. And it starts well before the pros. You see this process in college and even in high school and younger.
Jessica Luther writes about the ways universities profit from football while covering up sexual and other crimes. And then the fans shake their heads, express pious outrage, when that training bleeds off of the football field.
The football players will play their role for us, they will entertain us even if they die of head injuries that result from the staged violence. But we blame them. And let ourselves off scot-free.