The NFL and Bumper Sticker Totalitarianism

Football fans have grown tired of woke sloganeering. They have a point.

A helmet worn by Ronnie Stanley #79 of the Baltimore Ravens with the words End Racism sits on the sidelines during the second half of the game against the Cleveland Browns at M&T Bank Stadium on September 13, 2020 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)

The first week of the 2020 NFL season is in the books, and to quote the ever-lovable Tony Romo, wooooooow! How else to describe Tom Brady’s first appearance in non-Patriots colors? Or New England’s mostly seamless debut of Brady’s replacement, Cam Newton, who showed up to his postgame press conference looking like the Mad Hatter had just returned from Easter brunch? Or Lamar Jackson, the new sage of Baltimore, crushing the omni-hapless Cleveland Browns?

If this sounds like the kind of shouty hype-prose usually reserved for wrestling managers and small-market sportswriters, that’s because it is. But I just don’t care. After a year of plague and unrest, it was good to watch a bunch of giant men in pads run into each other for a while.

Yet the NFL was also something else this week, something it’s now embraced as never before: woke. Gone was all the hand-wringing and brow-furrowing that followed Colin Kaepernick’s decision in 2016 to kneel during the national anthem. While Kaepernick himself wasn’t on the field, the league seems to have internalized his state of protest and then some. Helmets were scrawled with slogans about racial justice and the names of those killed by police. “END RACISM” was stenciled onto end zones. Players didn’t just kneel during the anthem; entire teams refused to leave their locker rooms.

The shift came amid a year that has cast our nation into stark racial relief, as George Floyd was killed and Breonna Taylor was shot to death. But it also happened for another reason: the NFL can no longer avoid the issue. Players have been taking a knee for years, activism has been bubbling over, yet the league itself has frantically tried to dodge the controversy, and even occasionally pushed back on it. Recall that just four years ago, Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner, said of Kaepernick, “I don’t necessarily agree with what he’s doing.” Now out comes Goodell, looking even more than usual like a protocol droid on the verge of an all-systems malfunction, to personally apologize to Kaepernick, even calling him “Kap.” What made the difference was money, the NFL’s first concern as well as its second through eighth, and with capital going woke and some star players reportedly pressuring the front office, it became inevitable that the league would commence a cynical about-face.

So you can understand why the fans might be a tad suspicious, why some of them might even boo a display of racial unity by the players, as they did before the season opener in Kansas City. The league’s opportunism reeks. Its hypocrisy is offensive to the senses. No wonder, then, that ratings for the kickoff game were at their lowest in more than a decade, despite featuring the sensational Patrick Mahomes and the near-perfect Chiefs offense. Yet beyond the NFL’s shamelessness, there’s another reason why people are less enthused about football this year: the fact that the league has been politicized at all. Research by Harris recently found that fans were tuning out from NBA basketball, and that the most commonly cited reason was that the games had become too political. It isn’t much of a leap to assume that football watchers would feel the same way, weary of more wokeness spilling out of their TVs.

It’s often been said that wokeness is becoming totalitarian. That doesn’t mean, or at least it shouldn’t, that adjunct women’s studies professors are about to start nailing telescreens to the walls of our homes. Rather it means that wokeness as an ideology increasingly makes claims on every aspect of our lives. That in and of itself isn’t necessarily terrifying—the Catholic Church might be said to do the same thing. But whereas Catholicism is centered on a catechism that promulgates diverse truths about diverse subjects, wokeness takes a single truth—bigotry is evil—and insists that it be exalted everywhere. It’s a kind of bumper sticker totalitarianism, premised on simple slogans and thus easier to promote than, say, a thick and multifarious set of beliefs.

Even more appealing is that woke bumper sticker totalitarianism is vicarious. You don’t actually have to do anything, save for maybe flash a couple words on the Jumbotron and donate a picayune sliver of your immense profits to charity. That’s what’s been most jarring about this NFL season: for all the talk about how football needs to bleed from its heart, nothing big has really changed. The games are still the same minus the crowd noise; the commercials stretch on and on. The only palpable difference is those omnipresent slogans, which are meant to be vicarious without ever spoiling football’s overall effect. You read them and you feel good because they signify that someone somewhere is doing good; you participate in social awareness from the comfort of your couch. And then you scream at your TV. The refs must be blind to think that was pass interference.

That’s the theory anyway. The problem is that it misses an essential truth about football: the fans don’t want lectures on politics, no matter how brief and facile. They tune in because the workweek is long, they spent most of the morning raking leaves, and now they want to sit, switch on their lizard brains, and cheer on their teams. Aha, say the woke, but that’s an incomplete picture. The fans themselves are also political. Don’t they want everyone to stand during the national anthem? Don’t they enjoy those military flyovers before the games? As it happens, I think the league has become too militarized, but the important point here is that the fans don’t see it that way and never have. They don’t view flag and uniform as inherently political, but rather as civic symbols that are supposed to unite us all, regardless of party. Kneeling during the anthem, then, isn’t a counterpoint or a challenge so much as a desecration and an infringement, politics intruding where it doesn’t belong.

It shouldn’t surprise us that the NFL’s players, 70 percent of whom are black, are concerned about social justice. Certainly they deserve credit when they work for real community change—and also when they embarrass the league’s avaricious front office. Yet the fans have a point too. It’s time we accepted that having certain rituals that are politics-free, a little cordoned-off demilitarized zone where the culture war can’t intrude, is a good unto itself and ought to be protected. Instead we’re going in the opposite direction. C.S. Lewis once said, “A sick society must think much about politics, as a sick man must think much about digestion…we think of such things only in order to be able to think of something else.” Today, not only can we not think of something else, we don’t seem to want to. The woke are everywhere, on T-shirts, window signs, commercials, school board meetings, supposedly neutral news coverage, literature, art. Now they’re out there scrimmaging on the gridiron.

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