When Safeties Aggress

Indulge me for a few moments in a hypothetical.

In this phantom universe, you reside in a house.  The house itself, and its location, are immaterial; but you’ve been living in this house for a long time.  Setting aside any and all proprietary questions, or of ownership, let it be said that the house is, by virtue of being the house you’ve lived in for so very long, “yours”.  One day, a stranger approaches, and as a passing matter describes a thing very much to his liking. Quelle surprise, you think to yourself in wonder, for the very thing the stranger describes – though he uses different terms – is none other than the Svarturja*, which can only be extracted from a Fugsvarturlur*, which you happen to have in great abundance!  Conveying this to the stranger, though, your wonder quickly turns to dread, as the stranger unveils a threatening implement, and summons a company of other strangers, accoutred with more of the same implements.  With a menacing air, they command you to extract as many Svarturja as you can from as many Fugsvarturlur as you know of, on pain of retaliation.  And if this weren’t bad enough, these strangers also take your house, in addition to your labor and dignity, of course, and inculcate in you a clear and unambiguous directive: that your failure to do what they want will be far worse than this current injustice.

* I’ve long been somewhat fascinated by Faroese; don’t ask me why, and know that there’s no real import to these invented words being based on it.

We’ll return to this.

What’s sometimes strange to me about being a sports fan is that, unlike every other category of person deemed worthy of celebration, there’s a purposeful divide between entertainer – here, athlete as opposed to other kinds of celebrities, like musicians or actors – and entertainment.  (This being aside from the fact that, weekly, I stand like a fisherman, my line baited with every emotional fiber of my being instead of worms or whatever, and I, unhappy lunatic that I am, cast it into the ocean of football willingly, knowing that the bite on the other end is gonna hurt, badly.  This, too, is very strange.) In every other mode of entertainment, our collective desire for knowledge of the person behind that entertainment has become frenzied. An entire sub-industry of journalism – and if we’re being honest, both: a) it isn’t journalism, and b) it is probably far more profitable than journalism ever has been, which what does that say about us? – exists for this very purpose.

In sports, and particularly in the modern NFL, though, the opposite appears to be true: the best athletes are the ones who cease to exist off the field, setting aside the charity and community work they’re all expected to perform in order to be taken seriously whenever they give voice to any kind of opinion. In fact, “off-field issues”, so vague and threatening as to be worthy of scare quotes, is now short-form for a panoply of alleged problems that can derail a young athlete’s entire future, often before he even plays a single down of professional football.  When off the field, footballers are expected to stay out of trouble, not make noise, and attend to their work with an absolute minimum of complaint, like children of the Victorian era. Owners and their agents seem keen to punish infractions, which can sometimes seem ill-formed or incomprehensible, shining clarity on the power dynamic between the two with all the force and subtlety of a bonfire. Players are encouraged to accept, as dogma, with grace and gratitude the opportunity afforded them, even knowing that it’s one attended by the risk of life-long pain and severe injury.  To the extent fans know much about their favorite athletes as actual people, it is by virtue of something exceptional, whether play, personality, or iconoclasm; the reality that this truth conveys the most strongly though, both literally and surprisingly, somehow, is that this is indeed the exception.

No player has disrupted this ontology of football more than Colin Kaepernick: no matter your opinion of the man or athlete, his actions both on and off the field have probably forced you to contend with yourself.  Maybe you had to spend a few extra moments confirming that what you believed in the days before, and what you believe now, are the same, or close enough for comfort. Maybe you read something. Maybe you tried to avoid reading or hearing about it, but failed because the story was so pervasive, a blight – his kneeling, or the things against which his kneeling was a protest, take your pick – that spread no matter the disinfectant or fire used to try to contain or unmake it.

Enough has already been said and written about Kap that nothing more needs be said here; what’s more interesting in the here and now was a pregame exchange between two opposing safeties, Panthers’ Eric Reid and Eagles’ Malcolm Jenkins, during Week 7.  Both are players that have praised Kap for his efforts, and subscribe to a view on the subject that, broadly speaking, aligns strongly with his. While we don’t know what words were exchanged between the two on Sunday, we know from post-game interviews that the former called the latter both a sell-out and a neo-colonialist.  We can also speculate that the exchange between the two safeties presumably has its origin in the Players Coalition, which Jenkins co-founded, and which secured from the NFL a pledge of $89 million to fund projects focused on social justice issues, which was formally agreed upon earlier this year. Eric Reid was originally part of the Coalition, or some iteration of it, before it applied for 501(c)(3) status and began actively negotiating with the League with some kind of commercial intent.

To return to the story of the Svarturja and the Fugsvarturlur – it is a parable, shortened to such a degree as to be almost meaningless, on colonialism; a story told in countless places that is, at its lowest, of foreigners committing theft on foreign lands, and then increasingly of the creation of institutions and apparatuses to protect those thieves.  Thus, when we hear Reid calling Jenkins a neocolonialist, it should be taken in that context: a condemnation of the latter’s theft of Kap’s message and labor. And while I don’t have any reason to suspect that the other part of Reid’s indictment is true – i.e. that Jenkins deliberately co-opted Kap’s work for material benefit – the dualism is interesting.

On the one hand, I can easily sympathize with Reid’s frustration that Kap, who is pretty much solely responsible for the explosion of this movement within the NFL, has no part in it. (That Kap is the only player whose protest appears to have functionally blacklisted him from playing professional football, given the state of some QB play in the league now, is beyond merely frustrating.)  So too can I find little fault in a view that points to countless historical instances of power using wealth to silence protest. Indeed, anyone with a funny-looking hat and a pipe would have no great challenge finding examples of this tendency in the hallowed halls of the League itself: from how it conducted its settlement of a lawsuit stemming from concussions, to the heavy-handed but arbitrary use of punitive suspensions.  We can even see how the mere presence of football as entertainment, with its attendant allure of wealth, confers power over those removed from it, such as when domestic violence victims recant at an eleventh hour.

And yet, on the other hand, it would be foolish to discount or diminish the League’s concession of almost $90 million. Jenkins, and the players on whose behalf he negotiated, had the ignoble task of asking for something knowing that he had very little to offer in exchange, seemingly a swindler whose only trade value was precisely his silence.  For the League, let’s not forget, is controlled by the owners, and it would have been within their power to silence further protest in any way they wished, and bargaining for something from a position of such powerlessness is, on its face, impressive.

Yet, at the risk of being morally tedious, there’s a bigger issue at play: I don’t know who is right, or if anyone is clearly right, but what I know or believe is besides the point.  Which is itself the point, to a degree. Both Reid and Jenkins have used their platform to amplify the cries of those without such mighty voices, who increasingly despair of a culture of brutality that, once it immigrated from across one sea to the end of another shining sea, never really departed; amplifications that are both discouraged and professionally fraught.  As Bo Wulf wrote in The Athletic in his very readable piece about the confrontation and what it means, “[o]ver the course of four hours, not much had really changed except for an added win in one column and an added loss in another”.

But this is, importantly, a very player-specific recounting; obviously, that win and that loss were changes of staggering importance to Panthers and Eagles fans, and that outcome may, in the distant future, have some kind of apocryphal importance in determining playoff seeding in the NFC.  And yet, I can’t help but wonder at the silliness, or even naivety, of imagining whether any of those plays, or even the game in the aggregate, change Reid’s view on the Players Coalition or Jenkins’ sense of accomplishment. Ultimately, as separate as those two perspectives are, it’s inescapable that, somehow, the game is itself the basis of that separation: that nothing changed for Reid and Jenkins as people is just as true as that a great deal changed for those safeties as players.  And the surprise with which we do or can treat the obviousness of the one should be alarming when juxtaposed with the obviousness with which we can so easily see how the outcome of a game creates a change of its own.

I hope that this characterization is faithful to Reid and Jenkins’ actual beliefs on the subject; if it is, it’s only because of a serious effort to consider what those beliefs are.  By means of their exceptional play, both have earned their voices, and we should respect that by listening: rather than polarizing, their disagreement should serve as an opportunity to learn more, about them or their contentions, or even both.

But as much as this serves as an opportunity to be better fans, it also reinforces one of the more powerful ways in which fandom is subjugating: that we extend the courtesy of a mere hint of a willingness to listen only to those players that stand out as exceptional.  If we’re willing to subject ourselves to the emotional vortices of fandom, fisherfolk all of leviathans with giant teeth and tentacles and neither pity nor mercy, then why not meet the players where they are as people? Why not pay more attention to those nuances of being that make them what they are: activists, poets, breakdancers, wizards, enforcers, superheroes, or, if nothing else, just individual?  There would be no League, no football, without them, and the issues facing both The Game as well as the game – riddled with what can seem like the impossible traps of complex intersectionalities, redolent of racial questions that have plagued this country since before its founding, and bound up with terrifying uncertainties about players’ capacity to endure a violent sport – ultimately and perhaps unfairly belong to them.  That their answers differ, that those differences can be emotionally taxing, and that that condition can bleed over into other aspects of their life should hardly be surprising.

As fans, we’re conditioned to idolize our favorite players, but if we’re being honest we’re idolizing such a diminishing part of them, pieces of wreckage rather than the monuments from which they came.  And that – to use the most convenient term possible, provocative, I hope, in its simplicity – is sad.

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