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Tomgram: Robert Lipsyte, Donald Trump, Colin Kaepernick, and Me on Super Bowl Sunday

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

What a strange moment. Everything, even the Super Bowl, is being Trumpified and is now divisive. Of course, the Super Bowl is always officially divisive with two rival teams and the fervent fans of each. Still, in a normal year, no matter which two teams are playing, the Super Bowl is also the great unifying event of the televised American year (other than, perhaps, the Academy Awards). More or less everyone watches, while consuming oceans of beer and enough chips and guacamole to fill a mid-sized city. It's pure ritual all the way to the last minute of the fourth quarter. (As for me, when it comes to sports, I'm a New York hometown chauvinist. I lose interest once my city's teams fall out of contention and yet -- like a zombie -- I still engage in a Super Bowl-watching ritual with friends.)

This year, however, as with everything else in this country, it's going to be a Trumpian spectacle all the way. Like past presidents, The Donald will evidently not attend, but the New England Patriots are his team. (They play the Atlanta Falcons, if you happen to have been locked away in Guanta'namo these last weeks.) Quarterback Tom Brady, coach Bill Belichick, and owner Robert Kraft have all backed Trump. Brady even had a red "Make America Great Again" hat in his locker. Trump hailed them at his campaign rallies, and he's wished them well in Sunday's game. ("'In the audience, we have somebody that's under no pressure whatsoever, because he's got a great quarterback named Tom Brady, and a great coach named Belichick,' Trump said [at a donor dinner in Washington], pointing to Kraft. 'Your friend Tom just called, he feels good. He called to congratulate us... Good luck, you're going to do great.'")

And of course he bestowed perhaps the greatest honor of all on Brady, implicitly dissing him recently. No one, after all, can be allowed to stand taller than Donald J. Trump, which means that sooner or later even his allies have to be cut down to size and put in their place by him. Consider that a rule of Donaldland. In this case, during a rambling speech at CIA headquarters the day after his inauguration, he interrupted a riff about media "dishonesty," itself an interruption of assurances that, despite media attempts to misreport his relations with the Intelligence Community, he was with the CIA "one thousand percent," to take Brady down a notch in his own inimitable fashion: "So a reporter for Time magazine ... and I have been on their cover 14 or 15 times. I think we have the all-time record in the history of Time magazine. Like if Tom Brady's on the cover, it's like one time because he's won the Super Bowl or something, right? I've been on for 15 times this year. I don't think that's a record, Mike [assumedly National Security Adviser Michael Flynn], that can ever be broken. Do you agree with that? What do you think?"

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What do you think? Fortunately, in such unnerving times, sportswriter Robert Lipsyte, TomDispatch's jock culture correspondent, returns after an extended leave to offer us his memories of The Donald (whom he interviewed numerous times back when) and an assessment of how football has, at this curious moment, worked its way deep into the most unsettling parts of the American psyche. So get out those chips and that bowl of guacamole. It's time to think Super Bowl, but in the context of an American world now being Trumpified. Tom

Football Is Trumpball Lite
Can Kaepernick Save Us?
By Robert Lipsyte

The Super Bowl is superfluous this year. Who needs a reality show about violence, domination, and sexism, not to mention brain damage, now that we have Trumpball, actual reality that not only authenticates football's authoritarianism but transforms us from bystanders into victims? Before this game is over, the players may swarm the grandstands and beat the hell out of us.

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Pro football actually helped prepare us for the new president's upset victory by normalizing a basic tenet of jock culture: anyone not on the team is an enemy, the Other. And it's open season on opponents, the fans of opponents, critics, and women (unless they're cheerleaders or moms). Trash talking is the lingua franca of this Trumpian moment, bullying the default tactic.

Yet pro football has also provided us with the single most vivid image of current American resistance to racism. Last summer, before a pre-season game, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat during the playing of the national anthem as a symbol of his refusal "to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color." As the season progressed, he started going down on his right knee when the anthem began, revealing that he was wearing black socks decorated with pigs in police hats. These, he said, represented "rogue cops that are allowed to hold positions in police departments." He would eventually stop wearing them, convinced that the socks were a tactical mistake.

Kaepernick's non-violent gestures, done initially without fanfare, were the most powerful message from SportsWorld since that other hard year of despair and determination, 1968, when two American Olympic medalists, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, raised their black-gloved fists in Mexico City.

Incredibly, Smith, Carlos, and Kaepernick were all tutored by the same man, sociologist Harry Edwards. In the 1960s, as a young San Jose State professor, Edwards created the Olympic Project for Human Rights as his protest against racism. Now a retired Berkeley professor, he has been a long-time adviser to the 49ers.

Forty-nine years ago, as symbols of the so-called Athletic Revolution -- an attempt to resist the tyrannical rule of coaches and administrators, particularly over African-American football players and college track-and-field competitors -- Smith and Carlos were marginalized. Instead athletic "activism" morphed into hustling for sneaker endorsements. But this time, Edwards promises, will be different. "The evident trajectory of the Kaepernick 'movement' (and the growing support among athletes for its concerns)," he recently wrote, "means that there are going to be some turbulent times over the upcoming Trump era as the pressure on athletes to stand up and speak out escalates."

You won't be surprised to learn that Donald Trump immediately disparaged Kaepernick's gesture, telling a Seattle radio station, "I think it's a terrible thing, and you know, maybe he should find a country that works better for him, let him try, it's not gonna happen." He then moved on, as he tends to do -- perhaps because he was already bored or perhaps because it triggered a memory of his own disastrous pro football days.

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Sports Owner Trump Destroyed His League

Donald Trump is an old story for me. When I first began talking to him in the mid-1980s -- I was then a sports reporter for CBS Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt -- he had just bought the New Jersey Generals of the United States Football League (USFL), then in its second year of operation. The USFL played its games in the spring and summer to avoid direct competition with the National Football League for fans and TV access, but did manage to bid successfully against the established league for a number of star players, including Herschel Walker, Steve Young, and Doug Flutie.

In the course of our first long interview, Trump assured me that he was not a man consumed by his latest purchase. ("If the league isn't successful, then, you know, it's off to the next thing.") He did, however, boast -- he was already The Donald, of course -- that his involvement gave the USFL "a little bit more warlike posture toward the establishment," and that the "magic" of Trump Tower would enhance the image of the league. He insisted that he didn't much like attention himself, but felt obligated to do this interview because I represented "a great show." Even then, he spoke in the adjectival style (Great! Sad!) now familiar to all Americans. At the time, though I sensed that it was all mud, I was a journalist and at least it covered the ground.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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