As the United States celebrates the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., with the swearing-in of this country’s first African-American president, there will no doubt be commentary on the great gap between ceremony and reality. It’s the gap between the public spectacle of President Barack Obama’s inaugural oath—sworn on one of Dr. King’s Bibles no less—and a country still ravaged by what King called “the giant triplets of racism, militarism and economic injustice.”
In addition to the inaugural festivities, this weekend was also marked by a spectacle that will rival or exceed the inauguration in passion and interest: the National Football League playoffs. NFL football, by a country mile, is the most popular sport in the United States. It also stands as a living monument of the distance we still must travel to slay King’s “giant triplets.” I write this, in full disclosure, as someone who follows the sport religiously, but struggles to not be blind to the politics the NFL pumps through its play.
First and foremost, this weekend’s football games presented an orgy of militarism. From the armed forces ads, to the live shots of the 101st Airborne watching overseas, to the warplanes flying overhead, the unspoken slogan was, “If you like the NFL, you’ll just love the US military.” Amidst the militarism, there was no mention that the greatest commonality between the violent, high-adrenaline excitement on the field and the drudgerous, when not dangerous, poverty-wage work in the US military is traumatic brain injury. The league has even engaged in a joint partnership with the US Army to share research because of the stark similarities between being hit with a concussive grenade or an IED and being hit repeatedly by a middle linebacker. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the tributes to King by the NFL don’t include the time when he said, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom.”
The issue of economic injustice that King was tackling at the end of his life, pulses throughout the NFL as well. As King said, “The profit motive, when it is the sole basis of an economic system, encourages a cutthroat competition and selfish ambition that inspires men to be more concerned about making a living than making a life.” The fact that athletically gifted children see the NFL, with all its attendant dangers, as being their ticket out of poverty says so much. The need of their friends and family to attach themselves onto these players as if they are substitutes for the antipoverty programs that no longer exist, also speaks volumes. The fact that for many of the nation’s poor, they can’t even enter the stadium unless they are there to sell pretzels or beer, even though they paid for the stadium with their tax dollars, says even more. The fact that NFL owners are never held accountable for the injuries on the field, the exploitation of players, or the robbing of the public treasury to pay for their domed palaces, only proves another of King’s maxims: “Many white Americans of good will have never connected bigotry with economic exploitation. They have deplored prejudice but tolerated or ignored economic injustice.”
Finally, there is the issue most closely tied to Dr. King’s legacy: the “dream” of living in a colorblind world where people are judged by the content of their character. To say that the NFL’s deeply conservative all-white ownership doesn’t exercise racial prejudice is like saying Florida doesn’t suffer from sunshine. This past off-season, the league had eight head coaching positions to fill. All eight were filled by white hires. Despite the NFL’s much-celebrated Rooney Rule, which requires the interviewing of “minority head coaching candidates,” the league is down to four head coaches of color, including Latino Ron Rivera. That means only 9 percent of coaches are African-American in a league where 70 percent of players are African-American: the greatest disparity in a decade.
Yahoo! Sports football writer Mike Silver wrote, “I know some of you don’t want to be bothered with such inconvenient truths and would rather believe that every NFL owner (and/or individual with hiring power) is a color-blind, ultra-competitive beacon of nobility who is simply trying to find the best man for the job. If so, feel free not to read columns such as these—and to ignore the facts that suggest otherwise. Just know that in my world, the evidence isn’t so easily dismissed, and a lot of very qualified and proficient men are baffled at the way the NFL seems to be regressing as we enter the early stages of the 21st century.”
I spoke to N. Jeremi Duru, author of Advancing the Ball: Race, Reformation, and the Quest for Equal Coaching Opportunity in the NFL, about the all-white hiring wave. He said to me, “It seems the most sought after head coaching candidates during the last couple head coach hiring cycles have been offensive coaches, and for various reasons the NFL’s African-American coaches who’ve attained head coaching positions have for the most part been defensive coaches…. This year only one of thirty-two NFL offensive play callers is African-American, the Baltimore Ravens’ Jim Caldwell. If the league’s clubs remain infatuated with offense, I don’t see the numbers of head coaches of color appreciably increasing until head coaches of color are given greater opportunities at the top of clubs’ offensive coaching hierarchies. The NFL said late last week that it is looking into altering the Rooney Rule. Hopefully any such alterations will impact the coaching pipeline on the offensive side of the ball.”
The Rooney Rule, as Duru details, only came into being because of threats of a massive lawsuit. That tactic may need to be revived. As Tony Dungy, the first African-American head coach to lead a team to a Super Bowl victory, said, “I don’t know what the answer is. I just know the system is broken.”
The popularity of the NFL, the popularity of a league that promotes, reflects and exemplifies Dr. King’s “giant triplets,” might signify nothing. Maybe it’s just an incredibly entertaining product, a magnetic mix of violence, suspense and fellowship. Maybe, as nature abhors a vacuum, it’s a force for community cohesion in our isolated, atomized world. Maybe it’s all of these things but maybe it also symbolizes something far more rotten beneath the massive 100-yard American flag they unfurl before every playoff game. To quote Martin Luther King one last time, “I have come to see that America is in danger of losing her soul. Something must happen to awaken the dozing soul of America before it is too late.”
Named one of UTNE Reader’s “50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Our World,” Dave Zirin is the sports editor for The Nation magazine. He has good friends in San Diego who urged us to repost this article. Zirin is a frequent guest on MSNBC, ESPN and Democracy Now! He also hosts his own weekly Sirius XM show, Edge of Sports Radio. His books include What’s My Name Fool? (Haymarket Books), A People’s History of Sports in the United States (the New Press), Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love (Scribner) and co-author of the forthcoming The John Carlos Story. You can find all his work at www.edgeofsports.com.