Sports and the Right

Examining the right-wing political assumptions that underpin our supposedly “apolitical” sports culture.

If, on Juneteenth of this year, you tuned into the hearing on H.R.40—the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act—you might have been surprised by the testimony of Burgess Owens, the former NFL player, Super Bowl Champion, and College Athlete Hall of Famer. He wasn’t the only person with celebrity status to attend; witnesses invited by the Democratic Party included Ta-Nehisi Coates, actor and activist Danny Glover, and filmmaker Katrina Browne. But Owens may have stood out because he was invited by Republicans to oppose the bill, along with Coleman Hughes, a Columbia undergraduate and Quillette columnist.  Owens is currently an author and a guest contributor on Fox News, but more importantly, he’s a leading voice in a popular yet under-analyzed school of right-wing thought in the Black community. This strain of thought is rooted in sports culture and proselytizes rugged individualism, hyper-nationalism, and adherence to conservative bootstrap philosophy. While some argue that these flaws make sports “inherently fascist,” and thus irredeemable, I believe that the significance of sports in the Black community makes the fight for equity in sports an important piece of the broader struggle for racial justice. 

Owens’ testimony at the H.R.40 hearing was eccentric, to say the least. He began by recounting the story of his great-great-grandfather Silas Burgess, a man who “came to America shackled in the belly of a slave ship” and who, through his own industriousness, rose to become a “risk-taking entrepreneur” and “pillar of his community.” Owens told Grandpa Silas’ slave-to-riches story as proof that Black Americans have already demonstrated the ability to achieve success in America without special assistance. He balked at the notion that Black Americans should receive any compensation for past injustices and argued that previous generations would “be ashamed of the prevalence and acceptance of [this] demeaning victimhood within their proud race.” He further insisted that the very idea of reparations “reinforces a spiritual view of racial relationships that is antithetical to America’s Judeo-Christian foundation” and represents “a culturally Marxist idea promoted by socialists” which “denies the promise granted by an omnipotent God that we are truly equal.” 

While at times Owens’ testimony felt like more of a response to the Chappelle Show’s depiction of reparations than to H.R.40 itself, his most coherent points can be summarized as follows: (1) The social position of Black Americans today cannot be substantially improved by a deep analysis of slavery and its lasting structural impact, (2) attempting to do so will only create a class of villains and (Godless/Marxist) victims, and (3) the answer for Black Americans is individual striving and good old-fashioned hard work. Or, as Owens stated succinctly: “Grandpa Silas never believed anyone owed him success. Why should I believe white Americans owe me anything?” 

Amid the activism of Black athletes today, Owens’ conspiracy-laden testimony may appear abnormal, and his conservatism may seem—to the casual observer—like an aberration in an otherwise progressive community of Black athletes. With so much publicity going to players protesting police brutality and Donald Trump, it’s easy to conclude that most Black athletes share these viewpoints. But unfortunately, the way Owens transformed a narrative about racism and white supremacy into a Rudy-esque feel-good story of individual triumph is indicative of a popular strain of thought in many Black athletic circles. It is a philosophy promoted and monetized by Black athletes and businesses via book deals, movie deals, motivational speeches and general inspo-porn

As Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis states in his 2015 autobiography I Feel Like Going on: Life, Game, and Glory

Survival—that was the big message that came through in practice. We’d go at it, hard. One-on-one. And the boy who survived these battles was the boy who could get it done. Football, the game itself, was almost beside the point. It didn’t much matter. The scoreboard, it didn’t much matter. What mattered was what the game could teach you. What mattered was a sense of discipline… For me, the game became my sanctuary. It took me out of my own head and whatever ugliness was around me and just set me loose. 

In Lewis’ narrative, sports are essential: They literally taught him how to navigate through life. If “the boy who survived these battles was the boy who could get it done,” then both life and sports come down to a matter of individual heroic effort. This brutal social Darwin-esque lesson, gleaned by a young Ray Lewis from football, could just as easily have been pulled from a book by Ayn Rand (unclear which is more harmful to the brain). In summation: Your life will be brutish and short, there will be ugliness around you, learn to make peace with suffering and with endless struggle, worry about what you can control and leave the rest alone. 

In Burgess Owens’ interpretation of this philosophy, as told in his 2012 book It’s All About Team: Exposing the Black Talented Tenth, Owens explains, “I believe that success is a matter of choice not chance… I believe only through struggle and persistence can we take advantage of the special talents we have hidden within. It’s not the Super Bowl Ring that I wear, but the character and resolve I exhibit during the downtimes, that defines me as a champion.” 

Here, in a book that I assume was comically unsuccessful due to choice not chance, Owens perfectly illustrates the fallacy at the core of his H.R.40 testimony and the bootstrap philosophy of sports more broadly. In both, success is merely a matter of choice. When an individual fails, they have only themselves to blame. When they succeed, it is due to their own grit and determination. The central lesson a Black athlete can glean from this message is that the social position of Black Americans today is due to individual bad choices. Examining the effects of a corrupt system or history of discrimination is just going to impede our progress. Needless to say, this perspective is entirely antithetical to the principles of racial justice work.

To be sure, these conservative principles didn’t become commonplace in the Black athletic community solely because of individual players like Ray Lewis, Burgess Owens, Jim Brown and others. In fact, it’s more likely that their views were shaped or solidified by the right-wing propaganda that young Black athletes consume every day. This propaganda operates beneath the scenes to promote American Exceptionalism and idolize rugged individualism, averting all possibility of systemic critique of our country’s exploitative racial caste system.

Following the Colin Kaepernick-led protests against police brutality, discussion raged over whether the former quarterback’s actions were justified. Despite general bipartisan acknowledgement of the purpose of the protest—athletes were kneeling to bring attention to the issue of police treatment of Black Americans—there existed a sharp partisan divide over whether or not athletes should be required to stand during the anthem. Some on the left felt the protests were an appropriate and even essential use of the giant platform gifted to star athletes. Some on the right argued for the separation of Sport and State, with one writer stating that a return to the pre-Kaepernick era would deliver “a message of unity that is much stronger than any one [individual’s] manipulation of a captive audience to voice their political position.”

But regardless of their position on the political spectrum, many fans and writers have still been operating under the assumption that Kaepernick introduced politics into an otherwise apolitical environment. Sports are generally agreed to be a great uniting force, where for a few brief but wonderful hours, people of different religions, races, sexualities, genders, and political leanings can come together, forget the ugliness around them, and be grateful that they aren’t New York Knicks fans.

So what exactly is it that we are deciding to unite around? Despite the effort expended to make sports culture appear politically neutral on the surface, a deeper examination reveals clear right-wing political messaging. 

On Super Bowl Sunday, for instance, the event will start with the National Anthem, usually followed by something like an Air Force F-18 flyover (costing hundreds of thousands of tax dollars), and maybe even a David Petraeus coin toss. Black players will be coached by a predominantly white leadership and “led” (often but not always) by a white quarterback—a position that some still believe requires too much intellect for Black people. The stands will be filled with a disproportionately white male audience yelling obscenities at the disproportionately Black male athletes playing a sport where life-altering injuries are accumulated like Boy Scout badges. (I still vaguely remember my first concussion badge!) Further still, all of this will occur in a billion-dollar stadium often funded by corporate exploitation of public funds. 

While watching from home, the jingoism will be brought to you in 4K resolution by way of multi-million-dollar advertisements that seek to exploit the patriotic atmosphere created by the NFL. (Classics include a Clint Eastwood commercial for Chrysler that proclaimed “it’s halftime in America too…except we are all scared because this isn’t a game,” a five minute short on the American flag, and a Jeep Wrangler commercial displaying images of babies and veterans while the Star Spangled Banner plays ominously in the background.)

Accompanying every moment of on-field action will be play-by-play coverage that evokes images of war and violence to a comical extent. As George Carlin mimics in his skit on the violence of football: 

In football, the object is for the quarterback, otherwise known as the field general, to be on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy, in spite of the blitz, even if he has to use the shotgun. With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing his aerial assault with a sustained ground attack that punches holes in the forward wall of the enemy’s defensive line. In baseball, the object is to go home and be safe.

What do you think? Is this a neutral, politics-free event or a Rupert Murdoch wet dream? Although the answer looks clear in hindsight, right-wing propaganda in sports is incredibly difficult to detect if you’ve been immersed in the culture since birth. The life-long normalization of this rhetoric and ideology influences behavior and encourages athletes to uphold a system that is damaging to athletes generally and to Black athletes in particular.

As a child who ate, slept, and breathed sports, the bland ubiquity of these markers shaped my beliefs without my knowledge. On Sundays, it did seem like sports were apolitical. The patriotic fanfare just felt like a natural, inextricable part of the game. 

As a former athlete myself (I spent two years on Columbia University’s football team), I can tell you that the indoctrination went deeper. While looking around the sports world, it did seem like success was a choice. When every player you idolize attributes their success to hard work and God, these concepts start to appear inextricable, and views like the ones Burgess Owens voiced in his H.R.40 testimony begin to appear reasonable. 

The connections between success, hard work, and God are then reified by a sports media apparatus that shuns “overt politics” and obscures the influence of luck and privilege in favor of glorious hyper-individualistic success stories (e.g., Tim Tebow: The Chosen One, as the quarterback was literally called in an ESPN-produced documentary). Coaches often continue the success-as-choice indoctrination by taking on the “no excuses” approach that undergirds the views of many right-wing ideologues. Jordan Peterson’s right-wing self-help doctrine, for example, often relies on the notion that people will find happiness if they stop making excuses, shut up, and work hard: “To stand up straight with your shoulders back is to accept the terrible responsibility of life, with eyes wide open… It means willingly undertaking the sacrifices necessary to generate a productive and meaningful reality (it means acting to please God, in the ancient language).” There are no excuses for failing to stand up straight and make sacrifices; to see the prevalence of this attitude in football, look no further than the autobiography titled No Excuses by former University of Oklahoma football head coach Bob Stoops, or the autobiography titled No Excuses by former Notre Dame football head coach Charlie Weis, or the autobiography titled No Excuses by former NFL player Derrick Coleman. 

The right-wing propaganda turns extra exploitative as athletes transition past high school sports. Before an athlete chooses a college to attend, they undergo “official recruitment” and may participate in “official visits” to schools that show interest. These visits are, in theory, an opportunity for a young athlete to tour campuses and meet important people so that they can make an informed decision about where they’d like to spend the next four-plus years of their life. In reality, the visits are a chance for elite programs to flex their money by wining and dining their preferred athletes. Teams invest in multi-million dollar facilities with the explicit goal of being able to woo top talent to commit to their programs, thereby increasing their chances of winning games and making more money. As a teenager going through this process, it’s difficult not to feel like you’re being rewarded for adhering to the bootstrap doctrine. You fought; you won; you earned it. The glitz, glamour, and gratification that comes from achieving the goal you worked so hard for solidifies the beliefs that helped you get there. Furthermore, the schedule of a student-athlete surpasses a 40-hour work week and leaves little room for anything beyond the field or classroom. The money (thrown around, but not paid directly to athletes) and the busy schedule combine to uphold a system that exploits the labor of athletes generally and Black athletes in particular. 

But the most exploitative part of college athletics may lie in how it heavily promotes the imagery of “bootstraps” and “hard work” to mask an unjust system. In the highest-grossing college sports (football, and then basketball), majority-Black labor is transformed into money for white executives. While most high schoolers resemble the stereotypical amateur athlete that plays for the love of the game, the average college athlete looks more like an exploited employee. Their labor is unpaid and their value is solely based on how many wins (a.k.a. how much profit) they can make for the university. College athletes no longer play primarily for friends and family (who hopefully value them for more intrinsic reasons), but also to fatten the pockets of others. While the nice facilities and campus popularity can make some athletes feel like they have no reason to complain, corporations and NCAA execs rake in record profits as college athletes work for free.

The former Duke basketball freshman phenom Zion Williamson provides an illustrative example of the system’s injustice. Earlier this year, Williamson was the main attraction in a star-studded rivalry game between Duke and the University of North Carolina. Over 4.3 million people watched from home while a sold-out crowd filled Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium. Celebrities in attendance included Spike Lee and Barack Obama. On the day of the game, tickets ran for $4,000 each, surpassing ticket prices for admission to the most recent Super Bowl. Unfortunately, the excitement was short-lived. After only 34 seconds of play, Williamson ended up on the floor clutching his knee. The continuous stream of replays revealed the culprit: As Williamson had attempted to plant his foot to change direction, his foot had burst through his Nike shoe, injuring Williamson in the process. The horrific incident proved financially impactful. Nike finished the next day’s trading down 1.1 percenta $1.1 billion loss, due in large part to a few Black teenagers playing basketball; teenagers whose piece of the overall revenue resulting from their labor includes little more than a free education. 

Although the specifics of Williamson’s case are unique, its peculiarities help shine a spotlight on the broader system of exploitation that Black athletes face. Despite the billions of dollars that college and professional athletes create through their own labor, a predominantly white cabal of executives, coaches, and front office personnel decide where the money goes. The players, college and professional, are told to “stick to sports,” not politics, and are consumed by demanding schedules. Only when a grotesque accident like Williamson’s occurs is it clear how much profit is actually being funneled through these systems, and how little control the players have except to act as living advertisements for defective shoes.

As in the workplace, the decision-makers at all levels of the sports world maintain this control by suppressing any and all dissent. In sports, questioning authority is often grounds for physical punishment (e.g., if you talk back to the coach, they’ll order you to do sprints/up-downs/wall-squats). Vocalizing progressive beliefs can be seen as a “distraction” at best and cause for suspension at worst. (Recently, this culture of conformity has resulted in various NBA players and execs taking a spineless stance on fundamental human rights issues in Hong Kong in order to protect the league’s financial relationship with China.) To succeed in this system, an individual must always strive to be “coachable,” a nebulous concept that basically tells players to always do what they’re told, and to always do it with enthusiasm, and of course, with No Excuses or complaints. Players who can perform “coachability” are heralded as consummate professionals and team leaders, expected in turn to help keep dissenters in line. All these methods of control combine to encourage athletes, and especially Black athletes, to embrace the bootstraps philosophy that undergirds their exploitation instead of challenging the status quo. If this doesn’t scream “authoritarian” yet, keep in mind that the NFL literally punished dancing. 

Blowback from the NFL’s transgressions (racial disparities in coach hirings/firings, poor handling of domestic violence by players, ignoring evidence of brain trauma, etc.) has pushed the league to slowly attempt to change its public image. They’ve commandeered Jay-Z, also known as the less famous parent of Blue Ivy, to aid in their new “Inspire Change” initiative, and have begun donating money to charities with a social justice mission. Miraculously, even the charities themselves reinforce the right-wing messaging that sports culture seeks to foster in the Black community.

Take, for example, the Crushers Club, a Chicago-based charity that looks to give young people an alternative to gangs. The organization has recently come under fire after a series of tweets by founder Sally Hazelgrove went viral. One tweet in particular proves an apt symbol of the bootstraps respectability politics that is so popular in sports culture and so harmful to the Black community. Captioning a picture of herself with a dreadlock in one hand and scissors in the other, Hazelgrove writes: “And another Crusher let me cut his dreads off! It’s symbolic of change and their desire for a better life!” Critics rightly noted that the tweet perpetuated the notion that Black people’s natural hair is linked to deviousness and criminality. Twitter users responded by sharing pictures of their locs to fight against the stigma associated with Black natural hair. Hazelgrove promptly apologized while commentators on both sides maintained their party line.    

The NFL could plausibly argue that they had no knowledge of Hazelgrove’s prior tweets, but that’s beside the point. The bigger lesson to be learned from this fiasco is that the NFL’s new image looks exactly like the old. In an effort to change their image in communities of color, the NFL chose an organization whose politics epitomize the bootstraps ideology that sports teach young Black kids—i.e. no excuses, the problem is you, the problem is your hair, the problem is the choices you make, and never mind the institutional racism that surrounds you.

Crushers Club’s stated mission is “to be the strongest alternative to gangs. We arm young people with the support and skills they need to restore their lives and improve their neighborhood. Crushers Club is rooted in four ideals—respect, discipline, ownership, and love—that give our members a fighting chance.” One of Crushers’ major initiatives is their boxing program, which teaches students that “working hard and following rules is everything. No swearing. No talking about others. Lots of sit-ups, push-ups, and sparring. Discipline is the only way to win both inside and outside the ring.” Sound familiar? Crushers’ attempt to locate the root of societal problems like gangs, poverty and criminality inside the hearts of individual Black youth mirrors the worldview at the core of Burgess Owens’ H.R.40 testimony and Ray Lewis’ autobiography. It’s part and parcel of the right-wing propaganda shoved down our throats during professional sports games. It’s a core pillar upholding the infrastructure of college sports that allows the NCAA to exploit the labor of college athletes, and it echoes the calls by conservative commentators for Black athletes to “shut up [about the injustices in their communities] and dribble.”

The very existence of Crushers highlights the omnipresence of this propaganda machine. The organization’s stated social function in Chicago—keeping opportunity-deprived kids out of gangs by teaching them the merits of hard physical work, discipline, and obedience through sports—demonstrates the vital role that sports are expected to play within the Black community. Crushers mimics the “help” that has always been offered to Black Americans: a pep talk and a swift kick in the butt. Rather than making visible the systems that keep Black people from power, sports are used to gaslight Black athletes into thinking that any seeming injustice is all in their head. In the Black community, the bootstrap doctrine works like blinders on a horse: It keeps Black people focused on only what those in power want them to see. Unfortunately, given the history of disinvestment from Black communities, the situation is poised to get worse before it gets better.

As more information regarding the deleterious effects that playing football can have on the brain becomes public knowledge, families with means are choosing to skip football and/or sports altogether. The result of this white flight is a growing shift in American athletics. Black players already constitute a disproportionate amount of the football-playing population, and it appears their numbers are only growing. 

For some families, the risks that football may have on brain development pale in comparison to their advantages. As Albert Samaha, author of Never Ran, Never Will: Boyhood and Football in a Changing American Inner City, explains: “Yes, football is dangerous, but so is leaving one’s future in the hands of an unequal educational system. It’s no wonder the sport still feels like a winning ticket.” In poor, disinvested Black and Brown communities, sports serve an important social function that is not replicated elsewhere. Sports programs function as a ladder to opportunity (e.g., through college scholarships) and are some of the only programs that consistently receive funding. Organizations like Crushers Club receive contributions to help deliver their tough-love approach to Black children, all while Chicago schools remain grossly underfunded. In this system, especially in a city like Chicago, Black children are raised by the right-wing propaganda of sports culture, while white children are raised in progressive, well-resourced schools that offer a plethora of opportunities. The dynamic perfectly illustrates Martin Luther King Jr.’s belief that “this country has socialism for the rich, and rugged individualism for the poor.” 

Challenging the rugged individualism and bootstraps thinking that sports culture fosters within the Black community requires rethinking our engagement with sports. The recent legislation out of California that allows athletes to be compensated for the use of their name, image, and likeness is a necessary step forward. Greatly expanding initiatives like the Rooney rule, which requires NFL teams to interview at least one “diverse” candidate may also help to create marginal changes to the front office culture of professional sports. Writers like Dave Zirin, Patrick Hruby, and Jemele Hill represent progressive alternatives to the sports media status quo; amplifying their voices can help shift discourse. To be sure, all of these measures will prove inadequate, absent a transformation of the broader social conditions that young Black athletes face. 

Due to the influence that sports can have in under-resourced Black communities, fighting for changes in the social conditions of Black athletes will involve challenging the right-wing messaging disseminated through sports. This requires the overt bridging of sports with leftist politics. Fans can aid in this endeavor by pointing out the unacceptable politics at play within athletic culture and connecting these issues to wider structures of racial inequality, rather than by snarkily locating the problem within the hearts of fans themselves (e.g., equating all sports fandom to fascism). Merging leftist politics and sports isn’t without precedent, and highlighting this history can help connect and inspire a wider coalition. The movements to pay college athletes, to let college athletes unionize, to make sports safer, to increase pay for WNBA players and other professional women athletes, and to generally increase players’ rights can all be seen as pieces of a broader struggle for racial and economic justice. By not ceding sports to the right, we can demonstrate that organizing around principles of racial equity can benefit all aspects of our society.

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