Kaepernick & the Water We Swim In

Alastair Roberts recently wrote a post about the controversy surrounding the Colin Kaepernick and Nike ad. I’ve been thinking about his post all week because he seems to get to the heart of the issue. He starts with the idea of the “Cult of Patriotism:”

Beyond drawing attention to the specific issue of racial injustice, in kneeling for the American national anthem before the start of games, Colin Kaepernick’s actions served to expose the power of the American cult of patriotism, which has steadily brought professional sports into its orbit. While many justifiably lament the increasing politicization of every area of life, it wasn’t Kaepernick who really initiated the politicization of the NFL. The spread of the cult of the state and the military in American football was considerably advanced before Kaepernick ever took a knee.

Alastair is exactly right. Every time I hear people complain about how every area of life has been politicized, my knee-jerk reaction is to wonder when politics was ever a separate or contained social reality. Every social institution and entertainment industry–including governments and professional sports–is an extension of cultural values and identity. The NFL, MLB, and NHL have always been political entities because they represent a history of American cultural identity.

Consider, for example, the names of two teams in the NFL: the New England Patriots and the San Francisco Forty Niners. The Patriots recall the history of the Revolutionary War, and the 49ers recall the prospectors who journeyed to Northern California during the gold rush in 1849.

The names of both teams, however, are more than reminders of factual historical events. It’s safe to assume that a nation wouldn’t intentionally name a sports team in honor of a collectively recognized national shame. Team names are meant to promote a sense of national identity, and they do this by affirming a specific view of history.

“Patriots” is an unequivocal celebration of the heroic efforts of those who fought for American independence. “49ers” is a celebration of the wealth and prosperity promised to those who work hard and courageously seek a better life for themselves–i.e., the American Dream.

Seen as an endorsement of a particular view of American history, we shouldn’t be surprised when disagreement emerges. History is as much a game of interpretation as it is a record of dates, events, and people–hence, the name controversy surrounding the Washington Redskins. The flurry of denouncements and support of Kaepernick’s decision to take a knee during the anthem underscores Alastair’s point: Kaepernick did not politicize football. He exposed yet another way in which football was, is, and will always be political.

The difficulty, of course, is that the politics of professional sports is usually unstated. Professional sports are built on unquestioned assumptions about national identity, and they participate in the rituals/habits of culture. The result is a large-scale form of peer-pressure, what Alastair describes as the “power of cult.” The most effective way to reveal cultural habits of thought is to behave differently. In this case, “for the power of the cult to be made manifest, all Kaepernick had to do was to kneel.”

Alastair extends his argument further into the realm of civil religion, which I may take up in another post. But for now, I found his description of culture, sports, and politics especially fruitful for reflection and further discussion. It reminds me of David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon College Commencement speech. Culture and politics are part of the water we swim in. Unfortunately, we’re not always aware of it.