Footballs, Flags, and the Myth of Redemptive Violence

Guest post: Chris Furr

The most popular entertainment company in America, the NFL, is slowly revealing itself as an embodiment of America’s racist past and present, dressed up in helmets and shoulder pads. When I was a bachelor, it was not uncommon for my roommates and I to spend Sundays watching NFL pregame shows, then games all afternoon and evening. 12 hours of non-stop football consumption. Becoming a husband, father and pastor has curtailed my consumption significantly, but lately it’s my appetite for the product itself that’s suffered most. If the numbers are correct, I’m not alone–ratings and attendance are down across the league, meaning this may be one of the few times a statement made by our current President has been grounded in fact.

For me, it started with confirmation of what every consumer of the game should have known all along: consistent, traumatic blows to the head cause irreversible damage to the brain, and reduce quality of life in profound ways for players not all that far removed from their playing days. Big hits that once brought shouts of amazement now bring winces and nausea. The realization that we are watching human beings destroy their bodies for our entertainment should have been enough to damage the market, but the human (and especially American) fascination with violence runs too deep for that. They can engage in this destruction without our being outraged because at least they’re being compensated for it, but ask anyone who’s ever loved someone with a degenerative cognitive disorder how much money would make it worthwhile to see their loved one endure that cruelty, and see what they tell you. If America is the new Roman Empire, NFL stadiums are our Colosseum.

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Add to it that so many of those individuals crashing into one another at high rates of speed are men of color, for whom the sport has provided economic mobility, systematically made unavailable to them by more traditional routes for centuries, and this particular kind of violence becomes more distinctly American. Because the game is overwhelmingly played by men of color, our collective, subconscious prejudice enters the equation. Which is currently allowing consumers of the NFL to decry the moral failings of players guilty of domestic violence, substance abuse and the like, while also becoming infuriated by those who are discerning what’s happening in their communities, taking steps to address it, and kneeling during the anthem each week to draw attention to it. At once we can make generalizations about the lack of character in the NFL and be angry about the way character is expressed.

This is the deep, inherited prejudice of white America in modern form: that black men who have made a substantial living through the destruction of their bodies do not feel inclined to honor and salute the symbol of a country that has heaped oppression and violence on both their ancestors and contemporaries; and that we are offended by their stance. “Be glad America has given you the chance to destroy yourself for good money for our entertainment,” we say. It’s the long form version of the word “uppity.”

Exhibit A is Jerry Jones, the most recognizable owner of an NFL franchise (which happens to be “America’s Team,” the Dallas Cowboys), who has made a public show of demanding that his players stand for the anthem or not play. On its face, his position is laughable. Without the black athletes wearing the Dallas star on their helmets, Jerry Jones has no business. The massive, ostentatious cathedral of a stadium he built so folks could worship at the altar of football would be empty. The players have all the leverage, all of it. That he apparently doesn’t realize this, or believes they don’t realize this, is evidence of a slaveholder’s mentality. He has made a sizable portion of his fortune and all of his fame on the backs of black athletes; now, he believes he has the right to tell them what they will or won’t do with their bodies when the anthem is playing, as if he owns them. They will hit when he says hit, and they will stand when he says stand, or they will not receive the small percentage of the fortune they earn for him, which he is so benevolent to hand down.


NFL owners are preparing to meet to find a “way past” the anthem protests, as Commissioner Roger Goodell put it. What this tells us is that NFL owners feel that the protests during the anthem are beginning to hurt their bottom line, and they want to find a way to get back to making money the way they have always made it. I’m not sure which is more disturbing–that traumatic brain injuries, domestic violence and the rampant use of painkillers weren’t enough to suppress the appetite of the football fan; or that athletes taking visible action to hold America accountable to the ideals it claims have finally had a dampening effect on our enthusiasm for the sport. Yes, this is free enterprise, and yes, it is the right of a business owner. Maybe the only ones worse than Jerry Jones and his peers are we who are so unbothered that we lap up what they’re selling us without pause.

Despite all of the above, when there are games on and I am in front of the TV, I usually find my way to watching them. I’m hooked, like an addict is hooked, and I can’t give it up cold turkey. I have millions as company, which is perhaps yet another way the NFL stands as a symbol for America’s great sins. Because we prefer blind nationalism to full-hearted patriotism, we are hooked on the idea that if we unfurl giant flags, cheer for military flyovers and stand at attention for the anthem, America will be the “greatest country in the world” without us having to face all of its raging contradictions and injustices.

Because there is so much blood in our past and at our feet, we are addicted to the myth of redemptive violence. We seem to believe that if it can make you enough money, win you your safety or cheapen the price of a barrel of oil, the sacrifice of human bodies (particularly those with black and brown skin, or those from impoverished communities) is somehow worth it. Because injustice and inequality are so difficult to face, we are chemically dependent on the adrenaline-fueled “unity” that sports create, where we can, for a few hours, pretend that this fun we are engaging in is not also built on the worst of who we are.  

The reaction to kneeling before the flag is more vicious and aggressive than it would be if our religious symbols were perceived to be “disrespected,” which should tell us all that we have a problem; that the flag, the anthem, or the idea of America has become more important to us than Americans, and that we have an ongoing struggle in obeying the first of the ten commandments. That’s the first step, they tell us addicts–admitting you have a problem. Here is one, hoping against hope that I will find the strength to pick up the remote and admit it myself.

staff-chris2-1090x639Rev. Chris Furr is Senior Pastor of  Covenant Christian Church in Cary, North Carolina. He and his wife, Katie, have two sons.

 

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