Faster, Please!

Politics and Athletes

It’s fun to read all the deep thinking about the relationship between football and politics. I don’t watch television, with the exception of the NCAA Men’s Basketball tourney, so the current screaming match won’t affect my viewing habits. But I do love sports, and I’ve been doing Italy for fifty years—really—and if you spend time in Italy you’ll do a lot of soccer. Likewise across Europe. And if you do soccer, you do politics. Most of the teams all have very clear political identities. There are two in Rome, for example, Roma and Lazio. Lazio’s fans tend to come from good neighborhoods, and they tend to vote for conservative parties. The Roma faithful are less affluent, and tend to vote left. Elsewhere, the country’s top team, Juventus, hails from Turin, and it’s been owned in large part by Fiat, which is to say, the Agnelli family. VERY establishment.

Some teams are obviously class-linked, and if you want to see the current version of proletariat vs bourgeoisie, go to a match between (prole) Napoli and (bourgeois) Juventus, or (prole) Marseille vs. Paris St. Germain (bourgeois). One of my favorite books, written by a keen-eyed and keen-nosed French anthropologist, discusses the quasi-religious passions stirred by these matches.

The NFL isn’t like that. We don’t have politically or anthropologically defined teams; that’s part of European collectivism, not in keeping with American individualism (I’m sure you knew that the term “individualism” was added to the English language—by Alexis de Tocqueville, I believe–to describe us Americans). The current to-do has to do with individual players, not entire teams. When the Baltimore Ravens kneeled in unison before Sunday’s home game with the Steelers, the fans booed them (apparently misinterpreting the team’s gesture). All the talk about “unity” is beside the point. There is no team unity, only individual decisions. You know, Americans.

Furthermore, athletes’ involvement in politics is neither new nor surprising. Depending on the issue, fans either approve or disapprove. American players have long since been politicized, as have American athletes in general. Remember when Mohammed Ali protested Vietnam? Remember Jim Brown? Remember Bill Walton? Henry Aaron?

So, to my mind, the whole thing is just one more example of American exceptionalism. The unity some are talking about is the one on the money: e pluribus unum. We celebrate, or condemn, individuals, not collectives.

The results bear this out. It seems all of 19 players took a knee today.