Playing in the Company of Ghosts

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The work of social justice parallels a human need to relax the spirit. In the age of social media, this is easier to understand as our computer devices simultaneously inform us and entertain us. In Chicago, for example, news of the record deaths of Black men in “Chiraq” are dispensed by news apps that almost simultaneously celebrate the victories of the Chicago Cubs.

This parallel between social justice and entertainment is not a new American phenomenon. One of the most amazing story lines from the Civil Rights movement was the fact that people were going to movies – they were being entertained – at the same time that journalists photographed dogs biting at Black Americans (and Civil Rights allies) in Selma, Alabama. Also, right now, in the Dakotas, many people are converging on the Dakota Access Pipeline. They are fighting against the laying of oil pipes within sovereign tribal territory. Celebrities, over the last couple months, have caught on. Leonardo DiCaprio, for example, has stated solidarity. Social justice and entertainment are kindred spirits.

I strongly believe that similar expressions of solidarity in sports is a bit more difficult. Do not get me wrong – sports is “entertainment”. However, sports is also a way for Americans to work out their aggressions. We live vicariously through the athlete in a way that we do not live vicariously through other entertainers.

We can see the truth of these statements in recent weeks as the American public has reacted sharply to the stance taken by Colin Kaepernick against the murder of Black Americans by police. Opinions of his stance (or, more precisely, his kneeling) are divided along the same lines as the current presidential election. Kaepernick’s political and social statements against Black murders by police have exposed the fact that, within the sports-industrial-complex, there are limited ways for social justice to be advocated for.

It is comforting to know that sports is a great place for humanitarianism. The NBA and NFL state their “causes” as they play their games throughout the year. The NBA’s new slogan is “NBA Cares”. However, the sports arena has remained secluded from the plights of poor, racially alienated folks throughout the United States.

This week, the Carolina Panthers (an NFL team) was deciding if it ought to move its game in the midst of “rioting” after the police murders of Black men in Charlotte, North Carolina. (It ultimately chose not to move.) I posted on Twitter that this proposed move to another venue is akin to the Baltimore Orioles playing for an empty stadium during the Baltimore Riots of 2015. A New York Times article talks about “sirens in the distance”. This type of disappearance of social justice issues – either through empty stadiums or further exclusion of the “game” from the reality around the stadium – exemplifies the idea that American sports isn’t about “life or death”. Athletes know that they won’t be killed for the results of their games, but they are also not actively engaged in ending the deaths of people outside their stadium walls.

In light of the Kaepernick movement, what does it mean to defend human life despite the sovereignty of sporting events? Well, what is happening in the NFL is akin to what happened in a very old story: The Christmas Carol. What I mean by this is that, much like Ebenezer Scrooge, the contemporary sporting enterprise is being forced to confront its past. It is not enough to celebrate the story of Jackie Robinson breaking the “color line” in his entrance into sports. Athletes like Colin Kaepernick are forcing sports outside the privileged space within stadium walls. They are also redefining those spaces.

Corporate giants understood this power long ago. They began selling products with athletes as endorsers. The kid in the ghetto consumed the possibilities that were defined by super athletes such as Michael Jordan. But now it is not enough for Gatorade to properly hydrate and for Nike to properly clothe children who emulate famous athletes. The athletes themselves must address the spiritual needs of the community. They must serve different purposes for the community. Easily consumed products aren’t enough. Humanitarianism (e.g. through “foundations”) isn’t enough.

Indeed, the empty stadiums and (possibly) moved games are direct results of the fact that American sporting events are being played for an American audience that still demands that the actual sporting event go uninterrupted. In the 1960s, Brent Musburger called Black Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos “storm troopers” without penalty after they projected their clinched fists into the air at their medal ceremony. He represented the larger American notion that sports events ought to exist despite political and social uproar.

This is changing. Though sports remains a great stage, it is no longer sacred. In the wake of the CTE scandal and other types of corruption, sports officials and overseers are not trusted. Athletes have to prove more. Organizations have to prove more. Fan bases have to prove more. Look at the ongoing conversation about the “Redskins” mascot.

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A woman protests against the Washington Redskins mascot name outside NRG Stadium before an NFL football game between the Washington Redskins and Houston Texans, Sunday, Sept. 7, 2014, in Houston. (AP Photo/Patric Schneider)

What is all of this? Even in paying for tickets for the privilege to watch sporting events, “fans” remain haunted by the role of American sports in the abandonment and genocide of particular Americans. These are ghosts that are not going away anytime soon.