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Tomgram: Robert Lipsyte, Trump Tackles the NFL

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

Gladiatorial contests were the "sport" of choice of the Roman Empire for more than 650 years. Losing gladiators were regularly wounded or killed, outcomes in which the audience often had the final say (thumbs up or down or a closed fist with two fingers extended). Such decisions were reportedly accompanied by screams of "let him go!" or "slay him!" These days, it's hard to imagine such crowds in arenas absorbing those imperial bread-and-circus events carried out by Roman captives, slaves, or often desperate free men and ex-soldiers (or sometimes even women), some of whom became stars of their moment. As Evan Andrews has written at History.com, "Their portraits graced the walls of many public places; children played with gladiator action figures made of clay; and the most successful fighters even endorsed products just like the top athletes of today."

All of this should, of course, sound at least faintly familiar. It's now common knowledge that, in America's "blood sport" of choice, the players, generally men of color, essentially beat each other into states just short of death over the years, or so the latest information on brain damage and football would indicate. This isn't a subject that's still awaiting definitive research (though such research continues) or in any way in doubt. And yet professional football, which, according to Gallup, superseded the slower, quieter, so much less violent baseball as the "national pastime" in 1972 (just as the Vietnam War was grinding to an end) and in this century left baseball in the dust, ignored the issue of brain injury for years.

It's reasonable, in fact, to think of football as America's version of the Roman imperial pastime, even if our arenas aren't just stadiums but living rooms, dining rooms, bars, and these days more or less anywhere you happen to be with your personal version of a screen. Recently, in the manner of a modern emperor offering bread and circuses to the masses, Donald Trump placed professional football (especially its violence) at the very center of our overheated, over-tweeted politics.

In reality, everyone should be disgusted by a game which batters not just the limbs of its players but their brains in monstrous ways and by a president who calls for yet more of it. I certainly am, but let me just add that I've been a football fan since my father took me, at age six in 1950, to see the Brooklyn team in the soon-to-expire American Football League. This year, my team, the New York Giants, are 1-5 and launched on a season even more dismal than that of baseball's New York Mets last summer. So I'm almost ready to stop watching but -- to fully fess up -- gross as I find the brain-damage aspect of the game, I still find myself watching which, I believe, makes me a bona fide imperial spectator doing everything but shouting "slay him!" at the screen. To make amends, let me offer you TomDispatch's regular jock culture correspondent, Robert Lipsyte, so that he can do what I haven't yet brought myself to do and offer a thumbs down to Donald Trump's game of games. Tom

Trump's Game Plan
Racism and Violence as Decoys
By Robert Lipsyte

Millions of football fans must have felt grateful to President Trump for provoking the entire National Football League into a goal line stand last month. The sight of hundreds of players on the sidelines, arms linked with coaches and owners during the playing of the national anthem, not only soothed fears that a disrupted season lay in the NFL's future, but gave those fans tacit permission to keep on enjoying the games without being too disturbed about brain trauma on the field, collusion in the front office, or demands for racial justice.

Once again, Trump had made it all about Trump, then quickly blitzed on to fresh outrages.

Had anything really happened?


One long-time national sports conscience, Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, declared that Sunday, September 24th, was "the most important sports day since [Muhammad] Ali decided not to fight in Vietnam." From it, he foresaw the possibility of a civic conversation emerging that would create "unity in our communities."

On the other hand, could that Sunday of Accord have actually been no more than a Hail Mary pass designed to briefly shore up a vulnerable sport? Could that show of NFL unity have helped to block growing concerns that, amid a blizzard of negative news and views, pro football was beginning to fade as America's most popular spectator sport?

In other words, could Donald Trump have saved professional football? Give him credit for this: he certainly spun a mild demonstration against racism into a flagrant case of disrespect for the flag, the military, our wars, patriotism, the nation, and above all else, of course, Donald J. Trump. With his usual skill, he then reshaped that sizzling package into yet another set of presidential pep rallies for his own fans, that much-invoked "base." In the process, he also helped highlight the Jock Spring that had stirred last year when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick first refused to stand for the anthem. Though it seemed to fade after the initial blast of publicity, it was revitalized last month when the president labeled any football player who knelt or sat or stayed in the locker room during the playing of the pre-game anthem a "son of a b*tch," the same term he used last year to describe the killer in the Orlando nightclub massacre.

Trump's slur clearly resonated with the resentment many everyday white male sports fans often seem to have when it comes to bigger, younger, better-paid African-Americans who don't appear grateful enough for the chance to live out their daydreams. Keep in mind that the NFL, like the National Basketball Association, is a predominately black league. Major League Baseball, on the other hand, has a relatively small percentage of African-American players, although many Hispanics and Asians. (Only one active baseball player, Oakland's Bruce Maxwell, an African American, has taken a knee.)

The Coming of the Jock Spring

When it comes to racism and professional sports, the arc from Muhammad Ali's refusal to be inducted into the Army on April 28, 1967, to Lapchick's next most important sports day is a distinctly interrupted story. In that long-gone year, the Olympic Project for Human Rights, led by a San Jose State sociology professor, Harry Edwards, staged protests against racism. Among their demands was that Ali, the heavyweight champion, be allowed to fight again, since every American boxing commission had by then refused to license him and his passport had been taken away. Those protests culminated in an enduring image of resistance: African-American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos thrusting black-gloved fists into the air from the medal stand of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.

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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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