Christianity politics pop culture

The NFL’s National Anthem Failure

The NFL’s new policy that players must stand for the national anthem or else stay in the locker room during the song is the wrong decision. Team owners, a group of 32 billionaires, took varying approaches last season to handling the public relations kerfuffle over African-American players who knelt during the anthem. The “compromise,” announced by league head Roger Goodell, is more of a mandate, a response to an unexpectedly significant public backlash that seemed to drag down the NFL’s all-important TV ratings. Of course the league has the legal right to make its own rules, but the new policy represents a failure of moral leadership.

It’s important to remember that while former quarterback Colin Kaepernick began the kneeling as a way to protest black deaths at the hands of police officers, it was President Trump who played the most important role in the melodrama. The president made vulgar and unbecoming remarks about the few (at the time) players who were not standing for the anthem. The protests, which were then small and confined to a small handful of the league’s 32 teams, grew in response to Trump’s insults, until it snowballed into ESPN’s favorite topic of the year. Can you imagine a more perfect example of our dysfunctional public square than that?

Indeed, the NFL’s new mandate smells of the authoritarian flavor of the day. Conservatives who cheer on the NFL for making an example out of football players love to emphasize that the NFL is a private business and can do what it wants. Yes, and Google was a private business when it fired James Damore, and so are the elite universities that “disinvite” conservatives from speaking, and so is Facebook when it blocks pro-life advertisements, etc etc. This is a very strange time for those who adhere to traditional beliefs to be erring on the side of corporate autonomy.

The new policy is presented as a compromise between image-conscious owners and socially conscious players. But is it? According to the players who knelt, the entire point of the demonstration was not to express hatred of America or disgust at her citizens, but to express sadness for the centuries of racial animosity and violence that continue to gnaw at our country’s heel. You can make a good argument that kneeling during the Star-Spangled Banner fails to sufficiently get this message across, but you can’t argue that forcing players who want to kneel—for reasons political, or historical, or familial—to stay in the locker room, out of sight, is an authentic compromise. Rather, it’s the exact kind of conscience gerrymandering that traditionally religious Americans are used to by now, the kind that offers “freedom of religion” in a toothless, privatized sense, but denies “freedom of religious practice” in public life.

Why the implicit comparison between racial demonstrations and religious practice? For one, the similarities between the responses to each from corporate America is too much to ignore. Secondly, the NFL is a surprisingly religious league, with more openly Christian superstars than either the NBA or major league baseball. It’s not hard to imagine that the league’s aversion to peaceful (even prayerful) demonstrations during the national anthem might be a prelude to a more holistic aversion to players whose beliefs and practices are outside the mainstream.

In fact, we don’t have to imagine this, because the NFL has already told us what they think of orthodox Christianity. By threatening to punish states that protect Christian conscience from transgender dictates, the NFL has already positioned itself as a arbiter of American ethics, fit to lecture us all on morality. The anthem mandate reveals impressive depths of moral hypocrisy: The NFL doesn’t want the views of black Americans to disturb viewers’ TV experience, but it has no problem telling those who believe in “male and female, He created them” that pro football is better off without them. So much for compromises!

Given the NFL’s commitment to the right side of secular history; given its comfort with telling players to stay out of sight if they want to take a knee; and given the number of professing Christians who play pro football, doesn’t it make sense to be concerned that sooner or later, billionaire owners are going to want their players to stop posting those bigoted Bible verses on social media?

Roger Goodell and the team owners have missed a valuable opportunity. They’ve missed an opportunity to model a healthy public square, one in which people with different perspectives on rituals and anthems can dialogue with each other in public, learn from each other, and work with each other. They’ve missed, in other words, an opportunity to model the idea of America. One doesn’t need to agree with the demonstrations themselves to see the value in a sports league that errs on the side of peaceful expression and dialogue.

The water is getting choppy these days for pro football. Millennials are less interested in touchdowns and more interested in CTE. There are some who argue that the physical costs of football render it unacceptable to moral society. Count me among the number who believe, as Roger Scruton says, that valuable things are more easily torn down than built up. I only wish the NFL would agree.

culture politics pop culture

3 Kinds of Patriotism

A quick taxonomy:

  1. The patriotism of duty is the patriotism that involves material acts of fidelity to one’s country. This is the patriotism of military service and other varieties of selfless sacrifice. This is where patriotism becomes embodied, and its ideals take on specific actions worthy of praise.
  2. The patriotism of affection is the patriotism of the heart. It concerns one’s inner desire for the well-being of his country. The patriotism of affection can be seen in the patriotism of duty, but it does not necessarily result in it; one can genuinely love his country and yet be a coward, just like one could theoretically perform a patriotic duty and yet feel apathetic about the welfare of the country.
  3. The patriotism of manners is the patriotism of customs, written and unwritten. Placing one’s hand over the heart during the national anthem is the patriotism of manners. It can be done by anyone without requiring real patriotism of affection or of duty. Whereas the above forms of patriotism reveal, at least partially, a person’s true beliefs and hopes, the patriotism of manners is mostly establishing a set of protocols.

The problem with modern American conservatism is that it has reversed the order of this taxonomy. Whereas the patriotism of duty is the highest and noblest form of patriotism, American conservatism, intellectually crippled by talk radio and mass media, constantly fixates on the patriotism of manners, and makes it the true test of one’s “Americanness.” This is why most cable-news watching conservatives are vastly more offended at NFL players who kneel during the national anthem than they are at a sports league that routinely takes advantage of taxpayers in building enormous stadiums. The latter may be unfortunate, but it’s just politics as usual in the Real World. Kneeling during the national anthem? Traitors.

The fixation on the patriotism of manners is symptomatic of a conservatism for whom patriotism is constantly detached from reality. David Barton’s success among evangelical conservatives owes almost entirely to the fact that his revisionism is “patriotic.” It promulgates the “God and country” narrative of the American founding. Never mind that calling Thomas Jefferson a true Christian is an aggressive insult to Christian doctrine. That’s not what matters. It’s patriotic to think so. That’s what matters.

A friend told me yesterday that President Trump’s insult to NFL players would likely work in his favor politically, by eliciting hysterical reactions from the progressive media. Maybe. For my money, though, the most hysterical reactions I’ve seen to Trump’s comments have come from conservatives cheering him on. This is where we are right now.

culture politics pop culture

Capitalism and the Cleveland Browns

Stakeholders in the NFL cannot lose—at least not under the league’s current structure. Owners split money from the league’s massive TV deals and other media revenue streams. That stream is so dependable, so huge, and so guaranteed that it’s done what large, intractable pools of cash have done since the invention of markets. It has altered and distorted the very thing that created it, and broken the basic exchange between consumer and seller that made the NFL successful in the first place…

That approach towards maximizing your dollar with the bare minimum of effort became more sophisticated over time. As the league’s revenues boomed, they became something less like points of civic pride run as passion projects by the locally wealthy, and something more like attractive investment properties with a promising rate of return for billionaires — particularly those billionaires who entered the NFL as strangers to the league, but as intimate familiars of a corporate culture dependent on squeezing every profitable dollar, and trimming every wasteful one from the budget.

For instance: The legend of [Washington Redskins owner] Dan Snyder tells a story of someone who was “passionate” about the Washington franchise on a personal level. It sometimes leaves out his ruthless economizing of the franchise, a focus on the bottom line interrupted periodically by splashing free agent signings to keep fans semi-interested in the team. That he keeps them in the worst stadium in the league, charges for everything short of oxygen, and rolls out a consistently mediocre product doesn’t matter: His great gift as an NFL owner, after nearly 20 years, has turned out to be a deep understanding of knowing exactly how little actual quality he could slip into the product without breaking the customer’s dependence completely.

This is, I think, a good example of why some younger Christians are questioning capitalism right now. In the standard conservative Christian political pedagogy, competition is the most important factor in mitigating the greed and avarice of wealthy corporations. But the stagnation of the NFL illustrates the problem with this idea. What if corporations can still get filthy rich without having to compete? What if the rules are actually drawn up so that a bad product, bad services, and bad faith don’t cost you anything?

I mean, in pro football, “competition” is literally the core value, the chief good. But that hasn’t stopped franchises like the Redskins, Browns, Jaguars, and Rams (sniff) from trotting out bad products year after year, while their owners still profit enormously. These teams don’t just become bad. They stay bad, year after year, then decade after decade. And why not? If someone told you you could make $50 million by being excellent at your job, $45 million by being OK, and $40 million by being lousy, how motivated are you going to be to be consistently excellent?

The NFL is a case study in the skepticism toward capitalism. Capitalism’s conceit is that the way to create a quality and equitable market is to let consumers reward excellence and shun non-excellence. But in the NFL, the guys making the rules (eg, Roger Goodell) are answerable only to the guys looking to make the money (the owners). The rules favor the owners, not the consumers. And that dynamic persists year in, year out, because the money is locked up in a closed system. Is it really that far fetched to think this is basically how it all works in America, not just pro sports?

culture politics pop culture

Colin Kaepernick and Our Dysfunctional Public Square

The NAACP’s boycott of the NFL over Colin Kaepernick’s lack of a contract exemplifies in vivid focus the many ways that the American conversation about race and culture is dysfunctional. Admittedly, the stakes in this particular drama are low; whether a professional athlete is paid tens of millions of dollars to play a game or just a few million dollars is not especially rich ground for serious cultural critiques. But the omnipresence of the Kaepernick story on national sports media, and now the official response from a respected cultural institution, means that it might be time to start asking what this whole ordeal means in a tender cultural moment.

Don’t misunderstand me. The NFL deserves its fair share of animus. We know now that it almost certainly withheld important information about concussions and CTE from players for decades. The league has also taken an astonishingly capricious and hypocritical approach to players’ domestic abuse cases, and engaged in pathetic political posturing itself. If one wants to boycott the National Football League, there are good reasons to do so.

But the unemployment of Colin Kaepernick is not one of them. Nor is it an illustration of systemic injustice and institutional racism. Rather, Kaepernick’s drama has everything to do with the powerful role that media narrative plays in shaping public discourse, especially about race, and about the dispiriting lack of good faith from both whites and blacks. Contrary to what some of my white friends think, Kaepernick is not a traitor or “ungrateful.” And contrary to what some of my black friends believe, I don’t think Kaepernick is a political martyr or victim. He’s a football player, an American, and a black man, whose three identities, combustible as they might appear from reading ESPN, are completely compatible.

When Kaepernick began sitting out the national anthem during last year’s NFL season, many white fans interpreted it as a sign of disrespect for the country, for the game, and (presumably) for them. At the time that his actions began, remember, the 2016 election was still slouching toward Mar-A-Lago. Philandro Castile and Alton Sterling had both been killed by police officers, their deaths circulated on video through social media. Racial tensions were (and are) real. Thus, Kaepernick explained in a press conference after a 49ers preseason game, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way.”

Whether Kaepernick was right or wrong in his historical judgment on the United States, it would be wrong to not empathize with his perspective. Christians who believe in sinful human natures are obliged to affirm that such sinfulness can and does seep into the political and cultural superstructures that we create. To deny this would be to embrace a civic gnosticism that denies the role of individual human wills in society. White football fans who angrily dismissed Kaepernick as anti-American fail to respond to his claim. Additionally, there’s an unmissable irony in the assertions of some whites that people like Kaepernick are wrong to think about history and cultural context when they themselves are wealthy athletes. Aren’t these the same people who insist that confederate monuments ought to be protected in the name of “heritage”? If “it’s history” is why we ought not rename Jefferson Davis Highway, why should history suddenly not matter for a black quarterback who wants to talk about justice and racial equality?

This is a valuable example of the failures of the modern American conservative movement on race. It’s an unthinking tribalism that creates hypocrites out of supposedly small-government conservatives who suddenly think any questioning of law enforcement is by definition not “patriotism.” Count me out.

So does that make Kaepernick a true victim of a racist sports league? Hardly. Again, this whole episode is nothing if not a dramatic presentation of the dysfunctional public conversation about race. On the one hand are white football fans preoccupied with vacuous (and vaguely anti-free speech) notions of patriotism. But on the other hand, we see a political and media class that drives home, day after day, week after week, a conspiracy theory about a black quarterback in a black-dominated sports league.

Why is Colin Kaepernick unemployed? Lets answer that question with another question: Why do most NFL players go from active roster to free agent? There are several causes, but two are primary. The first is that they do not perform well enough to make a team’s final 53-man roster. This happens to hundreds of players in the NFL every year, many of whom were highly coveted as draft picks but for various reasons could not rise to the level that professional football demanded. The second reason is that a player can be released because he no longer wants to play under his current contract or for his current team. The NFL’s collective bargaining agreement stipulates the existence of “opt-outs” in certain contracts, where a player can choose not to return for the final year of a contract. Sometimes players do this because they are tired of playing for the team. More often they choose to do so because they believe another team would be willing to pay them more money.

Why recite these? Well, it turns out that Kaepernick actually made a fair case for meeting both of these benchmarks. Since going to a Super Bowl under Jim Harbaugh, Kaepernick’s performance with the 49ers slowly but surely declined. After Harbaugh left, the bottom fell out of Kaepernick’s play, with many analysts wondering if it had been the coach’s offensive system that allowed Kaepernick to flourish. In 2015, well before Kaepernick’s anthem protests, he lost his starting job with the 49ers and was benched. He did, however, get a second chance in 2016, being named the starter to replace a woeful Blaine Gabbert.

Which brings me to the second point. At the end of the 2016 season Kaepernick “opted-out” of his contract with the 49ers in order to hit the free agent market. Why? Presumably, he wanted to play for a team that would pay him more money than the 49ers. This is completely understandable for a professional athlete. It does mean however that Kaepernick wasn’t “cut” or disciplined for his anthem protests. Kaepernick is unemployed chiefly and most immediately because he didn’t want to play on the 49ers anymore. In other words, Kaepernick could be and most likely would be an NFL roster right now had he wanted to finish his contract with his previous team. If the NFL is determined not to allow a woke Kaepernick to play, why wasn’t he cut during the season, or prevented from playing, or cut after the season?

Nevertheless, this hasn’t stopped media outlets like ESPN and Sports Illustrated from making Kaepernick’s unemployment the dominant story in all of pro sports for a year. Never mind that players like Marshawn Lynch also do not stand for the anthem, but are currently on active rosters. Never mind that league heroes like Adrian Peterson (also on an active roster) have gone so far as to compare life in pro football to chattel slavery. Those obnoxious facts are worthless in promoting a juicy and politically powerful narrative, a narrative of corporate oppression and athletic McCarthyism. Meanwhile, sports media sits back and enjoys web traffic and headline-omnipresence as its narrative becomes stronger and stronger and polarizes more and more people.

There’s a final point that needs to be addressed. Even with all these mitigating factors, isn’t it possible that Kaepernick is a valuable symbolic figure for the struggles of African-Americans? But here’s where we should be cautious. To dismiss facts and good faith because the alternative narrative serves a valuable social purpose is precisely the kind of “post-truth” culture that generated a Trump White House. The anger that black NFL fans feel toward the NFL is rooted in misinformation and misrepresentation, both of which have been proffered by a sports media culture desperate to politicize its internal drama for maximum clickage. On the other hand, the resentment that white football fans feel toward Kaepernick and others like him is likewise often fueled by political myths and culturally convenient jargon. The result is that both of these factions scream past one another, each taking the other’s hostility as evidence they are acting in racist or anti-American bad faith. A vicious, almost impenetrable cycle of distrust, cynicism, and anger.

This is, sadly, the cultural moment we find ourselves in. It can, and must, be transcended. Our national racial wounds are deep and are in the shape of the slaveholder’s whip. Reckoning with a sinful past is never easy, either individually or corporately, but it must be done for God’s sake. And it cannot be done while seeds of hostility are sown by peddlers of narrative instead of truth.

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Atheism Random Thoughts sports

14 Worthless Predictions for the NFL Season

  1. Dak Prescott (QB, Cowboys) will win the starting job in Dallas and be named Offensive Rookie of the Year.
  2. Dallas will win the NFC East.
  3. Jeff Fisher will be the first coach to be fired this season, after the Rams start 2-6
  4. The Houston Texas will win the AFC South.
  5. Jimmy Garoppolo (QB, Patriots) will go 1-3 as a starter.
  6. The Cleveland Browns will go 10-6, make the playoffs, and Robert Griffin III will be Comeback Player of the Year.
  7. The Oakland Raiders will win the AFC West.
  8. The Carolina Panthers will win the NFC South.
  9. The Vikings will end the season with Shaun Hill at quarterback, after another season-ending injury for Sam Bradford.
  10. Falcons QB Matt Ryan will be benched before Week 8.
  11. The Green Bay Packers will win the NFC North and the NFC Championship.
  12. Aaron Rodgers will be the 2016 NFL MVP.
  13. The New England Patriots will win the AFC East and the AFC Championship.
  14. The Patriots win the Super Bowl, and Tom Brady announces his retirement.
Christianity culture ethics sports

On Religious Liberty, the NFL Fumbles In Their Own Endzone

As a lifelong fan of the NFL in general and the St. Louis Los Angeles Rams in particular, the months of March through July are not my favorite sports cycle. There are still, however, things I look forward to from my favorite sport in its offseason–the drama of the draft, the excitement of free agency, and the revealing of the upcoming season schedule. When it comes to giving its fans fun and entertainment off the field, few organizations do it quite like the National Football League.

But yesterday, Roger Goodell and the league made me wish football had been a bit quieter this spring.

News broke on Sunday that the league has threatened the city of Atlanta with losing its potential bid to host a Super Bowl, if Georgia passes House Bill 757. HB 757 is a religious freedom bill which stipulates that pastors and other religious clergy cannot be sued for refusing to perform services (such as a same-sex wedding) that violate their religious beliefs. The bill also extends this protection to “faith-based organizations,” closely held, IRS-designated religious institutions that would likewise possibly be pressured to lend services to events or products contrary to a confession of faith.

This law is, of course, a response to recent court cases that have found bakers, florists, and other professionals liable in discrimination suits because they would not create for or participate in a same-sex wedding. Similar to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, HB 757 is designed not to empower discrimination against particular groups but to preemptively protect religious organizations and individuals. There is absolutely nothing in HB 757 that enables public services to deny access for LGBT citizens. Rather, the law would force the government to demonstrate a compelling interest when seeking to punish conscientious Georgians.

The NFL, however, disagrees. According to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the league publicly implied that passage of HB 757 would disqualify Atlanta from hosting football’s biggest night:

The statement from league spokesman Brian McCarthy reads, “NFL policies emphasize tolerance and inclusiveness, and prohibit discrimination based on age, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, or any other improper standard. Whether the laws and regulations of a state and local community are consistent with these policies would be one of many factors NFL owners may use to evaluate potential Super Bowl host sites.”

As a pundit on Twitter paraphrased it: “Lovely representative democracy you have there, Georgia. Shame if someone manhandled it.”

To be fair to the league, their statement doesn’t explicitly deny that there’d be a Super Bowl in a state where religious liberty is taken seriously. But the NFL’s statement was in fact a reply to a question posed by the Journal-Constitution, and it’s difficult to read it as anything but a veiled threat against the state. It would have been quite easy (and very NFL-like) to not comment publicly on ongoing legislation, or to simply observe that the league doesn’t itself dictate political beliefs to its 32 teams and owners.

And it would have been much better for the NFL to have done that. The league’s moral grandstanding here borders on the ridiculous.

First, it should be noted that the NFL’s appeal to its own policies is hypocritical at best. Current NFL policy, for example, prohibits the use of recreational marijuana. Yet the NFL continues to field teams and host events in states where recreational marijuana is legal, like Colorado (which hosts the newest NFL champion Denver Broncos) and Washington (home to the recent Super Bowl winning Seattle Seahawks). The NFL has shown no urgency to make sure its internal policies align with state law up until now. I highly doubt this is an earnest change of heart.

Secondly, by implicitly threatening religious liberty, the NFL is turning on many of its most legendary and important people. Pro football has benefited enormously from the platforms of religious athletes, whether old-timers like Reggie White, Herschel Walker and Tony Dungy, or younger players like Russell Wilson and Drew Brees. Indeed, the NFL, far more than major league baseball or the NBA, depends on the employment and performance of religious players and coaches throughout its organization. The Atlanta Falcons, like other teams, have featured their chaplains in their organizational literature and PR. There’s no question that the NFL and its member companies have marketed themselves as friendly to the people they now imply may be bigots.

Third, the league is really not in a position to lecture taxpayers about their ethics. Pro football owners are notorious for passing along the costs of exorbitant new stadiums onto cities, while the NFL, which makes sure to get its cut of everything licensed by the “shield,” files with the IRS as a “non-profit” coalition of 32 individual businesses. In other words, the NFL reaps the financial harvest that comes when taxpayers–the same taxpayers who elect representatives, who then sponsor and pass legislation like HB 757–are asked to subsidize pro football, and don’t see any of the enormous profits come back to them via taxes.

If the NFL wants to criticize Georgia’s politics, it should first profusely thank Georgia and several other states for essentially sponsoring pro-football at taxpayers’ expense and the owners’ (and commissioner’s) profit. As it stands, if the NFL wants such a one-sided relationship with cities, it should probably abstain from farcical moral grandstanding on representative politics.

Lastly, pro football is not really in any position to wax ethical about…well, anything. This is the league, after all, that is facing a tumultuous legal and cultural battle over concussions, and recently settled with former players over accusations that the league withheld information about the effects of concussions on mental health. This is the league, after all, that until 2 years ago repeatedly turned a blind and apathetic eye towards domestic abuse, changing their tune only when media pressure was applied in the Ray Rice case. The NFL is good at entertaining and competitive sports, but it’s lousy at giving lectures on morality and decency.

As a football fan, I enjoy the league, even while I have criticized its flaws and hypocrisy. If the NFL wants to learn from its past failures, I am happy to hear it. What I am not happy to hear are lectures from an organization that profits from people with a conscience and taxpayers who let it skate. If the league wants to make leftist culture warring its newest offseason activity, count me out.

pop culture sports

My Super Bowl Preview

On Sunday evening, the NFL will play its final game of the 2015-16 season to determine its league champion. Super Bowl 50 kicks off at 6:30PM ET. CBS has exclusive broadcast rights to the game, though has said it will stream the halftime show (performances by Coldplay, Beyonce, and Bruno Mars) online.

Here’s what you need to know for the big game: