Race, Fan Supremacy, and the Kaepernick Ordeal


I’ve always found the dynamic between athletes and fans unsettling, especially in football and basketball.  These are sports where most of the professional athletes are Black, competing inside defined boundaries before majority white audiences.  The athletes face rules that limit their movement beyond the lines in a physical sense.  But even when fans, who are mostly perched above the playing surface, hurl verbal attacks or occasional flying objects in their direction, athletes are warned not to overstep their bounds.

Take the case of Metta World Peace (formerly known as Ron Artest).  On November 19th, 2004, World Peace’s Indiana Pacers visited Detroit to face the Pistons in an early-season NBA game.  As the game wound down, tensions flared between a few Pacers and Pistons players, but immediately deescalated without harm.  It was a normal scuffle by sports standards.  Then, a Detroit fan decided to throw his beer cup at World Peace’s face as the latter lay on the scorer’s table and away from the initial fracas.  World Peace immediately reacted by jumping into the stands, and several teammates followed

In this case, players fought back.  Between the objects flying at them, fans throwing punches from behind, and other fans stepping onto the court, Pacers players found themselves in a melee that we can’t simply describe as Indiana versus Detroit.  The dividing line between athlete and fan was also racial.  Mostly white fans attacked Black players with their fists, beer bottles, food, drinks, and even a chair. 

John Green, the man who threw the cup at World Peace, provided an astounding account of the incident ten years later.  “I bet I can nail him with this cup,” Green told his friend at the game and recounted in an interview.  “(I) launched it underhand, and the whole thing busted loose.  I aimed for his face.  I wasn’t trying to injure the guy.  It was an empty cup.”

Disregarding the fact that the cup wasn’t empty (the video clearly shows ice flying out when it hits World Peace), Green’s statement reveals the nonchalance about his abusive act even a decade hence.  “I bet I can nail him with this cup.”  The notion that he was launching a projectile at another person seemingly never crossed Green’s mind.  But even if he didn’t see Metta World Peace the person, Green did see a Black athlete, which for the fan, was enabling.  Green threw the cup because he thought it’d be funny.  He threw it because he could.

world peace image
Image source: http://grantland.com/features/an-oral-history-malice-palace/

The NBA ultimately suspended World Peace for the rest of that season, forcing him to lose $5 million in salary.  Green, who violated probation from an earlier DUI, spent six days in jail.  The punishment for fighting back was severe, with consequences that any athlete would have to consider should a fan attack.  Here then, the lines dividing athlete and fan indicated a separation of power.  The disparate punishment confirmed the uneven power dynamic.

This history leads us to the NFL and the current Colin Kaepernick ordeal.  When Kaepernick first sat during the national anthem last year, he expressed his rationale.  “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color,” said Kaepernick. “To me, this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way.  There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.” 

If World Peace and his teammates transcended the lines to defend themselves in the most immediate sense, Kaepernick has done so under a different kind of attack.  Kaepernick’s fight is seemingly against the system that perpetrates and sponsors the racial violence that Black people face on and off the field.  Of course, Kaepernick isn’t the first to protest the national anthem and that for which it stands.  He continues a long tradition of sports protest, which includes sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith; basketball players Craig Hodges, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, Toni Smith, and numerous WNBA players; and football players who have shown solidarity with Kaepernick.  Carlos, Smith, Hodges, and Abdul-Rauf were locked out of their respective sports for protesting.  For Black athletes then, the boundaries between the playing surface and the stands and those between sports and politics strictly apply to them.  The boundaries are effectively racial, as they symbolize the uneven power dynamic.

Former federal prosecutor and current National Review contributing editor Andrew McCarthy’s position speaks to this dynamic.  Said McCarthy, “I am like millions of people who love football as an escape from politics.”  The escapist argument reflects one of the popular refrains used among the anti-Kaepernick crowd.  McCarthy also proclaimed that he’d stop watching football if it’s no longer an escape.

The idea that an individual finds escape in watching people literally destroy each other’s bodies, especially when those people are mostly Black, must say something about the individual’s racial sensibilities and general worldview.  Say what you will about actually watching football, but to justify viewership of such a violent spectacle as an escape may help explain why so many are perfectly fine with Black and Brown people being mutilated outside the lines.  Off the playing field, it’s bullets and bombs instead of human missiles doing the damage.  Football is therefore not an escape; it’s a disturbing reflection of reality.  

And it’s precisely why Kaepernick’s protest resonates so strongly with those for and against him.  By fighting back from inside the lines, athletes like Kaepernick remind us that there is no escape from racism.  From flying objects to flying bullets, from racist hecklers to racist mobs, the sports arena represents a microcosm for social conditions.

The disingenuous escapist argument also contradicts the notion that Kaepernick’s unemployment is simply business, and race has nothing to do with it.  “Was race the intent?  No one can prove that,” said Karen Braun, a counterprotester against last week’s rally supporting Kaepernick at NFL headquarters.  More notably and seemingly on cue, several Black sports personalities have reiterated the business argument since the rally.  Buffalo Bills running back LeSean McCoy claimed Colin Kaepernick isn’t worth the distraction that comes with a team signing him.  ESPN anchor Sage Steele argued team owners have the right to decide what’s best for their businesses.  Hall of Famer Jim Brown, who supported Kaepernick’s protest last year, made an about face and advised Kaepernick to “honor” the commercial nature of football and the relationship between owners, fans, and players—in other words, he should honor the power relations.

These hot takes ignore Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti’s comment that he didn’t like the way Kaepernick protested.  Bisciotti’s remark came as the Ravens were considering signing Kaepernick last month.  The “simply business” argument also overlooks how Donald Trump, the president who advocates white supremacy about as openly as one can in his position, appointed New York Jets owner and republican donor Woody Johnson as the ambassador to the United Kingdom.  New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft even gave Trump an honorary Super Bowl ring.  Team owners recognize the imprudence of running a business without understanding the political environment.  Colin Kaepernick is unemployed because owners don’t want him working for them.  They cater to fanbases that want Kaepernick blacklisted from the league on racial grounds.  More importantly, the owners themselves don’t like his racial politics.

Donald Trump,Bill Belichick,Robert Kraft
Image source: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/news/blog/2017/05/04/bob-kraft-trump-friendship/

Above all then, the NFL desires a return to business as usual.  The sooner the Kaepernick story disappears, the quicker the league can restore its all-American image.  White fans can then enjoy the entertainment pleasures of on-field destruction and not be confronted with the racist contradictions that animate their fandom.  And owners can turn a profit just the same.  In the aftermath of the 2004 Detroit brawl, the NBA took drastic measures to whitewash its image.  Such measures included instituting a dress code; launching an “NBA Cares” outreach initiative; an age minimum for U.S.-born players, but not international players; more aggressively officiated games; and harsher punishment for players involved in altercations.  The NFL will likely take similar steps to suppress players’ political expression.  It has already done so with research on brain damage in football.  But between the ongoing research and persistent player protests, the NFL may have cracks that will prove unsealable.  Maybe truth is the new norm facing owners and fans alike.  It’s not business as usual, and there’s no escaping it.

Follow on Twitter @OvertheLine1 and contact at overthecolorline@gmail.com


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