I had a friend who, when we were young teens, was drafted into the junior hockey system which, for some, led to the National Hockey League (NHL). He had to move across the continent, where he would live, study, and play hockey full-time. I remember him, before he left, as a shy kid, a guy who didn’t say much. In fact, I’m not sure I ever really heard him say anything.
A few years after he left, he came home for the holidays and our two families went for dinner. As the parents talked loudly about serious and uninteresting things, I leaned over the table and asked him how things were going.
His shoulders stiffened, he straightened his tie.
“Well, you know, we all take it one day at a time, give 110%, and, you know, it is what it is.”
My friend is not Sidney Crosby. He did make it to the NHL though. Even made a few million dollars.
I read an interesting piece in The Undefeated this week. It presented the argument that team owners in the National Football League (NFL) will have no choice but to end the blackballing of Colin Kaepernick in light of the events in Charlottesville, and, more broadly, the rising tensions in the country in general.
For those unfamiliar with the story, Colin Kaepernick is a (former) NFL quarterback who began to sit or kneel during the national anthem before games last year. His explanation at the time:
This is because I’m seeing things happen to people that don’t have a voice, people that don’t have a platform to talk and have their voices heard, and effect change. So I’m in the position where I can do that and I’m going to do that for people that can’t.
It’s something that can unify this country. If we have these real conversations that are uncomfortable for a lot of people. If we have these conversations, there’s a better understanding of where both sides are coming from.
People are dying in vain because this country isn’t holding their end of the bargain up, as far as giving freedom and justice, liberty to everybody.
After the season, Kaepernick was told he would be released by his team. As of the writing of The Undefeated article, he was unsigned by any of the other 31 teams in the league.
The message from team owners to Kaepernick, and all players really, is clear: “You may ‘win the lottery,’ so to speak, by making a few million dollars playing sports, but don’t even think of using the power conferred by this economic security to express opinions contradictory to our own.”
Noam Chomsky speaks about individuals being promoted to the next level of management only after they have internalized the values of the level above. Not learned, internalized.
I thought about Kaepernick, and then about my old friend on his road to the NHL.
The fact that he returned after a few years away speaking in nothing but cliches was no accident. The team put him, all players, in classes teaching, ostensibly, how to speak to the media; how to speak in cliches.
It feels like this is the perfect metaphor for how North American sports develops its athletes.
The cliches may represent a team strategy, but they also represent a value system; one which is being internalized by these young people. Examine just a few popular sports cliches, not through the eyes of a sports team, but through the eyes of the world.
‘It is what it is’ – Things are usually what they are because they are made that way by somebody or somebodies. Something like inequality is not incidental.
“Give 110%” — Considering the past 50 years of spiking productivity and stagnating wages, some would argue giving less than 110% is ideal.
“Take it one day at a time” — It is difficult to consider the depth of issues, or work to enact change, when you are concerned with basic necessities. Perhaps the biggest fear of the 1% is the 99% being able to look beyond “one day at a time” and recognize their relative size.
In professional football, the indoctrination is perhaps not quite so overt, but the infrastructure is certainly in place. From pee-wee football to high school, then to college — itself a multi-billion dollar industry.
Reaching the ranks of professional football does not guarantee economic security. Despite generating the most money of any North American sports league, the NFL is unique in that it offers almost nothing in the way of guaranteed money to the players.
If a player signs a $50 million contract in the NHL, or NBA, or Major League Baseball, they will almost certainly receive $50 million. An NFL player who signs the same contract can, in most cases, have the contract terminated indiscriminately.
Of course, there is always a fresh crop of players coming from college. As in the case of Kaepernick, players who speak out or go against the grain can be cut from the team, replaced, and blackballed.
For the select few who do become Tom Brady — rich, prominent, influential — the values it took to get to that point have been internalized. They are supporting Trump, because they are friends with Trump.
In many ways, the Colin Kaepernick situation reflects the situation in the country as a whole.
When Kaepernick started taking a knee during the anthem, he did so to raise awareness and build energy around social justice issues which had long been ignored or pushed to the side by administrations Republican and Democratic alike.
This year in Kaepernick’s absence, still only in the preseason, players have sat down, raised a fist like Tommie Smith and John Carlos, and shown other forms of solidarity during the anthem; a group that now includes black and white players alike
Further, Richard Sherman, a star player who has made tens of millions of dollars over his career, has openly mentioned the possibility of a player strike when the current collective bargaining agreement expires after the 2020 season in order to obtain more guaranteed money in contracts.
With Kaepernick, like the country, the question at this point is not so much the creation of energy, but its direction.
I don’t know if Colin Kaepernick will sign with an NFL team this year. Within the big picture, I’m not sure it’s totally relevant. It appears the United States is reaching a boiling point which neither the billionaire owners of NFL franchises, nor any other member of the 1% will be able to prevent.