October 20, 2017
NFL Football: CMU’s Jason England Says, “It’s Not Just a Game”
By Daniel Hirsch
When President Trump’s comments at a political rally earlier this month ignited a series of NFL players to kneel during the National Anthem, Carnegie Mellon University’s Jason England was paying close attention. For England, a visiting assistant professor of creative writing, sports are far more than just games on a field. They’ve not only shaped his life but deepened the way he understands the United States.
England has watched the NFL from the time he was seven-years-old. He played basketball at a high level and in his teens played against and alongside future NBA players before three back surgeries benched him for good. He’s also written extensively about sports and the overlap between sports and societal issues for Sports Illustrated and the Root (under the pen name T.D. Williams). As players continue to kneel, and the Trump administration continues to react, England recently answered some questions about the nature of the protests and the racial politics of the NFL.
What started your interest in writing about the intersection of sports and race?
It’s impossible not to write about both: these are billion-dollar entertainment industries in a culture that increasingly prizes spectacle and celebrity over introspection and discourse. As someone who played sports at a high level, I learned that an astoundingly small percentage of spectators understand the games they watch. I’ve been watching football since I was seven years old, and I didn’t understand the nuance of offense and defense until I watched a game with a friend who was a Division I running back. He understood the game differently; there’s a distinct difference between what the camera frames and what’s actually happening. The same holds true for society: a surface-level interpretation is inadequate; we end up locked out of any meaningful understanding.
So, what do you make of the NFL protests that are happening this season, which involves coaches, owners, as well as players? Do you think something different is happening than what Colin Kaepernick kicked off last year when he knelt during the National Anthem to protest police brutality?
The protests have fundamentally drifted from Colin Kaepernick’s very clearly articulated intent. Those participating now seem less like they’re taking a principled stand—or kneeling as the case may be—than they are striking a reactionary posture in defiance of the President’s condescension and attempt to humiliate them. The protests have become completely incoherent, both in message and performance, from team to team and player to player. Are they about collective dignity? Personal dignity? Or about this vague and inoffensive notion of “unity” which renders the supposed protests impotent. But I don’t envy the players. Their response is doomed to be incoherent because they are doing a very awkward dance of affirming their dignity while trying not to alienate fans and viewers, who view them less as humans than as entertainment.
What does it mean for Colin Kaepernick to still be out of a job?
I think the fact that Kaepernick still doesn’t have a job speaks directly to the purposely nonsensical nature of the coaches kneeling with players. The meaning has shifted from a message about black life in America to this banal notion of unity. But what unites the owners and players? What unites us as Americans? The answer to these questions can’t be empty symbolism. There’s this James Baldwin quote that I really think speaks to this moment: “Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty.” We get a cheap thrill from performing virtue; it’s much more difficult to actually be virtuous.
What about the mixed fan response to all this? Some commentators have said things like ‘these players are making millions of dollars they shouldn’t complain.’ What’s your response to that?
They’re suggesting that a high paying job might be a privilege for some but for others it’s a right. That sentiment is nakedly racist. When people, including our president, make those arguments, there’s an implicit disrespect and disregard for the humanity of these predominantly black players, a disregard for their right to speak. Ultimately, it’s an emotional argument. Sure, it’s galling that a high school teacher gets paid a tenth of what these athletes get paid. But it’s a structural problem. It’s a problem with our culture. It’s even more jarring and disturbing that NFL owners receive so much social welfare while pocketing profits that make player salaries seem like chump change. Where’s the fan outrage for that? The selective indignation is telling.
Obviously there have been acts of protest in other sports — Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors publically said he wouldn’t go to the White House and LeBron James blasted President Trump on Twitter — but it seems like the NFL has really ignited something and captured the American attention span. Why do you think the NFL is so central in this?
It’s not a big leap to say that football is a uniquely American sport. Basketball is broadly popular outside of America; soccer is “the” global game. But football has limited reach, despite its immense popularity here. It’s not hyperbolic to call both the sport and our dedication to consuming it maudlin and unconscionable. We are watching players risk their wellbeing for our weekend entertainment. The NFL can’t fail here for the precise reasons it fails abroad: it’s tailor-made for us. Ours is a culture so desensitized to violence and dysfunction, so desperate for spectacle and vicarious experience of hyper-masculinity and combat, that football succeeds precisely because it performs truths about ourselves we either can’t or refuse to articulate.
The violence is abetted by the helmets blocking players’ faces. This makes them anonymous and dehumanizes them. They appear to spectators like chess pieces, or like an army on the move in a large-scale battle. It’s like war, with this mass of players on the field, so when one goes down, his knee exploded or leg broken, you don’t feel it in the same way. There’s a commercial break, another soldier comes in to replace his fallen teammate, and the show goes on. So the players are disposable in a way. I think that disposability is inherent to its popularity, why we can shrug off instances of criminality and immorality. And when you’re disposable, and replaceable, the coach doesn’t have to grant you as much dignity as the more star-driven sports like basketball. In football, the fans can largely disregard the player. Kaepernick directly challenged that. By kneeling down he was saying, “look at me, I’m a human.”
Above: Jason England reading from his work as part of the Adamson Visiting Writer Series.