By Thomas Mullen
Atlanta Falcons fans have spent this week watching awful, PTSD-triggering replays of last year’s Super Bowl loss against the New England Patriots, whom they will face again come Sunday night.
And NFL fans everywhere are bracing themselves for yet another week when the sport becomes, well, a political football. Last year’s Super Bowl, coming three months after the election, turned into an odd proxy — a Trump vs. Hillary rematch over social media. Tom Brady’s and Robert Kraft’s relationships with Trump were much discussed, combining with the Patriots’ status as the league’s alpha dog to cast the team as a villain among those who oppose our grandstanding president. This awkward metaphor only seemed to be confirmed by the Falcons’ collapse in the final eight minutes, eerily mirroring Hillary’s equally stunning fumble of Election Night. The New York Times’ stat guy, Nate Cohn, wrote that, at one point in the second half, the Falcons had possessed a 99.3 percent chance of winning, which were the same odds Clinton would win Pennsylvania. “The Falcons won the popular vote,” became a common tweet as the Pats’ comeback sank in.
Football has only gotten more political. When President Trump, speaking last month before an overwhelmingly white Alabama crowd that looked as rowdy as the Crimson Tide faithful at Bryant-Denny Stadium, lambasted African-American athletes who kneel during the national anthem, he started a spat that now spans the sports world. It’s been ugly, will likely stay ugly, and has made mere sports fans wonder if rooting for their team — any team — is even morally defensible anymore.
Far bigger issues than a Lombardi Trophy are at stake. Lost amid the accusations that athletes are “disrespecting the flag” (because kneeling is apparently disrespectful in our Christian nation?), and the debate over free speech and the fear of lost advertiser dollars is the fact that, when former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick started his kneeling protest last season, he was doing so to raise awareness of police shootings of African-Americans and the systemic racism in our criminal justice system. This vitally important issue — literally one of life and death—has been nearly buried by stories about Trump’s latest threats to NFL team owners and their various responses (which, of course, was probably the point all along). Conversations about staggering inequalities in the justice system, the over-incarceration of African-Americans, and the real dangers black people face every day are difficult, especially when Jeff Sessions is your attorney general. But it sure is easy to say you love the flag and hate uppity millionaire athletes.
As this presidency continues to violate all norms, sports have lost their place as that rare venue where people of disparate backgrounds and beliefs could unite behind a common cause. Sure, I love sports for the drama and the tension, but a huge part of my love for the games stems from that feeling of being in a boisterous crowd, insane with enthusiasm and united in pursuit of one goal. You become one with the crowd, exchanging high fives with people of different ages, races, personalities. The political opinions of the people sitting near you don’t matter one whit. You just want your boys to crush that other team. That precious feeling of both unity and escape now seems more fleeting than ever.
In the interest of transparency, and to test the bounds of whether I can be considered a likeable narrator, I must confess: I was born and raised in Rhode Island.
Which is in New England.
Which makes me a lifelong Pats fan.
Before you stop reading, please note that I’ve also been rooting for the Falcons since I moved to Georgia in 2008 (I haven’t lived in New England since 2000). Since the teams play each other in the regular season only once every four years, this kind of two-timing, common to transplants like myself, seemed mostly acceptable. I went to many a Falcons game at the Georgia Dome, whereas I’ve never set foot in Gillette up north, and I’ve bought my sons plenty of Falcons gear. I’ve felt chills up my spine when Samuel L. Jackson delivers his pre-kickoff “What Do Falcons Do?” pep talk on the JumboTron. My heart broke too when the Falcons blew their big lead in the 2013 NFC Championship Game against the 49ers (led by the amazing Colin Kaepernick — hey, remember him?).
So, I watched this last Super Bowl with a deep sense of discomfort. I tried to be neutral, an impossible task if you truly care about sports. I couldn’t exactly root against the Pats, a team I’ve always pulled for. But I also wanted the Falcons to redeem themselves, and I knew a Falcons victory would be great for my new hometown. If Atlanta could win its first title in 22 years, I would happily take my boys to the parade and buy them CHAMPIONS T-shirts. I’ve never lived in a city when one of its teams won a title, and, especially since I write novels set in Atlanta, I wanted to know what it felt like for the home team to hoist the trophy.
I may have been the only person in America who watched the game wearing a Falcons hat and a Pats T-shirt, fully aware that my sartorial choice was an abomination before the sports gods. For obvious reasons, I was not invited to any Super Bowl parties here in the ATL, as I would have been viewed as a jinx. An opinion I totally respected; I wouldn’t have wanted me around either. And the discomfort worked both ways: During halftime, when the Falcons led 21-3, my sister in New England texted me a plea to take off my Falcons hat, as she felt I was jinxing the Pats. (I left the hat on.)
In retrospect, I was a fool to have thought I might somehow be able to watch the game from a neutral standpoint and be happy for whomever won. That I could stand on the sidelines during what I expected to be a close, back-and-forth battle and could simply appreciate the game’s drama. Instead, I found myself, in the first 52 minutes, beholding a rout where I felt I was watching my new best friend beat up my little brother. Then, in the final eight, I confess I revelled in the Pats’ historic comeback while also feeling an equally horrific sense that my Atlanta friends were getting their dose of what I’d felt as a 12-year-old in 1986, when I cried myself to sleep after the Red Sox somehow blew a World Series they’d been a strike away from winning.
Being neutral is impossible, in sports as in politics.
Where are we supposed to stand? The Intercept columnist Shaun King has been calling on readers to boycott the NFL for the way the league has clearly blacklisted Kaepernick for daring to be politically outspoken (Kaepernick this week announced a lawsuit against the league for collusion). And ESPN’s suspension of anchor Jemele Hill has only added to the feeling that league and network executives will punish politically outspoken African-Americans. On the other side, many conservatives have threatened to boycott the league if it continues to “allow” its players to take a knee during the anthem. A sport that tries to avoid politics nonetheless finds itself under fire from both sides.
In these debates, it has become impossible to stand on the sidelines. There are no sidelines anymore. The playing field is everywhere. Which channel you watch, which sports league you do or don’t follow, which teams you root for or against, which musicians you may or may not listen to, which company’s products you will or won’t buy … each of these decisions, once thought apolitical, have taken on added freight in our unceasing culture wars. Stoked by a president whose desire to rally his base supersedes all else, we find ourselves living in a country where all neutrality has been abolished, all common ground filled with landmines.
Before the presidential election’s onset of toxicity, there had been a brief, golden, and probably hallucinatory moment in which it appeared politicians from both parties would unite on criminal-justice reform. Fiscal conservatives were realizing that their states’ budgets were being consumed by the costs of running prisons. Social conservatives from formerly “tough on crime” red states, who had been happy to apply draconian sentencing laws to predominantly black drug users in cities, started feeling differently about those laws as opiates ravaged rural, overwhelmingly white communities. Then the president started claiming that cities were cesspools with rising crime rates (news to those of us who live in our increasingly safe, increasingly expensive cities), managing to invoke Nixon in ’68 despite the fact that we weren’t experiencing ’60s-era crime.
Which brings us to today, when the Department of Justice is reversing Obama-era practices on drug prosecutions, and African-American athletes who dare to protest our unbalanced scales of justice are attacked the way Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos were for raising their fists in ’68. (One of my new novels’ heroes is named after Smith.) It seems we’ve gone back in time, penalized ourselves 15 yards, stumbled back toward our own end zone like Matt Ryan in the sights of a blitzing Dont’a Hightower.
Despite this, I still want to believe in amazing comebacks. Hopefully, even Trump voters will realize that revitalizing failed War on Crime policies will only jail more of their friends and neighbors, and they too will demand true reform before even more lives are ruined. Hopefully, even those who cheer his race-baiting attacks will remember that they too wouldn’t want the government telling them what to believe or how to protest. Hopefully, we’ll all remember that while football provides plenty of great military metaphors (with its blitzes and bombs, marches and conquests), the only way to move a country forward is by playing by the same rules and working toward the same goal.