Books

Gladiators

Spartacus gets reborn, again and again, changing gender and race and context.

Last year, former San Francisco 49ers star quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand during the pre-game playing of the “Star Spangled Banner,” to protest societal wrongdoings, including police brutality, against African Americans and other people of color. He joined athletes like the NBA’s Dwyane Wade and LeBron James, who in turn were following the lead of the WNBA players—yes, it was women who were at the forefront of protests over issues of racism and violent policing, and in support of Black Lives Matter which, it’s often forgotten, was founded by three women.

But refusal to stand for the anthem—ah, that touched a nerve. Kaepernick still hasn’t been signed to a team, punishment for that single nonviolent political act—in bitter contrast to finger-wagging rebukes team owners and the NFL have delivered to players who were proven wife batterers, child beaters, and public brawlers, but who received one-game suspensions.

Still, Kaepernick’s act had mostly faded from view. That is, until Donald Trump—frantic to deflect attention from his recent mortifying failures regarding North Korea, Puerto Rico, and his nemesis, the seemingly indestructible Obamacare, plus his inability to make Robert Mueller disappear—Donald Trump decided to resurrect the subject of athlete rebellion at an Alabama speech. To whip his crowd into a frenzy, Trump screamed: “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out. He’s fired! He’s fired!'”

Colin Kaepernick’s mother immediately tweeted: “Guess that makes me a proud bitch!”

I love that woman.

Trump then urged offended fans to walk out of stadiums. (After they’ve already paid for their tickets? Good luck with that, Donald.) He said referees are “ruining the game” by calling 15-yard penalties for “beautiful” head-ramming, bone-breaking tackles. He blamed this on the moderating influence of referees’ wives and claimed it “hurt the ratings.” In trashing the NFL for being no longer sufficiently violent for his Roman coliseum tastes, Trump praised NASCAR as a different model. So in passing, let’s note the demographics of these sports: 74 percent of NBA players and 62 percent of NFL players are African American. As for NASCAR, there have been four African American drivers in the entire Cup history.

Anyway, as we all now know, Trump’s tirade prompted a “Welcome to the NFL” growl in reaction. The league responded with a push-back statement from commissioner Roger Goodell. That was followed by a wave of demonstrations before games, as athletes across the league knelt, half-knelt, sat on the bench, linked arms, or declined to take the field at all during the national anthem. In Sunday’s first NFL game, at Wembley Stadium in London, multiple players from both the Baltimore Ravens and Jacksonville Jaguars knelt during the anthem—but then stood for “God Save the Queen.” In Nashville, singer Meghan Linsey knelt as she sang the anthem.

The momentum was impressive—and is still growing. Other sports—professional, college, amateur—joined in. The University of North Carolina announced that its NCAA Championship men’s basketball team would not attend the White House reception in their honor as planned.

Coaches and owners (opportunists who are terrified of player walk-outs) sometimes knelt or linked arms with their players, claiming it was all about “solidarity” since Trump had attacked the league for tolerating the players’ action as well as having lambasted the players themselves. Such “solidarity” seems a bit odd, considering how many owners were eager Trump backers. Jaguars’ owner Shahid Khan, a big donor to Trump during the 2016 campaign, locked arms with his team. Former Buffalo Bills head coach Rex Ryan, who campaigned for Trump, claimed to be “pissed off” by Trump’s comments. New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, an early supporter of Trump’s campaign, expressed “disappointment” with Donald, though the Patriots’ coach, Bill Belichick, who had also endorsed Trump, did not comment. But getting buried in all this “solidarity” was the original intent of the players, who had acted to join Kaepernick’s critique and protest of police violence against Americans of color.

So I say to the owners and coaches in their “solidarity” maneuvers: It’s too late, you hypocrites, you cowards who bluster about patriotism, who define manhood as brutishness, who send young men out to hurt one another for the pleasure of other men who willingly line your pockets to watch and cheer the carnage. You helped forge the monster that is Trump, and now you’re ‘disappointed?’ We know you. You’re the men who call feminists “man haters.”

Yet it wasn’t feminists who barred athletes of color from American sports—but who, while facing challenges from the Jackie Robinsons and Arthur Ashes, the Kenny Washingtons and Earl Lloyds, then discovered a vast trove of talent that could be monetized and exploited— later sucking in black and brown youths, dangling contracts like bait, like golden tickets out of America’s ghettos.

It wasn’t feminists who jingled large purses for the most talented among those youths, but who never bothered to educate them about handling such wealth so that they wouldn’t wind up broken and penniless—which they did.

It wasn’t feminists who winked and looked the other way when players began popping painkilling and then performance-enhancing drugs often pushed by their coaches, so as godforbid not to miss a game or risk suspension or being traded.

Traded! It wasn’t feminists who devised a system where a human being could be “transferred” and “traded” (for which read “sold”) between teams unless a “free agent.” Such terms and behavior should be regarded with disgust by this slavery-stained nation.

It wasn’t feminists who condoned, pardoned, and bailed out player after player who had brutalized his wife and girlfriend and kids, who kept such a valuable possession out of jail and away from counseling, who instead fed the athlete’s anxieties, frustrations, infidelities, ego, and always always his availability to play.

It wasn’t feminists who hid the anecdotal evidence: mood changes affecting judgment and impulse control, memory loss, tremors, blindness, and blackouts persisting long after retirement. Not until the athletes began committing suicide by shooting themselves in the chest so to leave their brains intact for research, not until they began willing their brains to science after death, not until the resulting research showed severe brain damage from the skull being repeatedly, violently bashed over and over and over for the lip-smacking pornographic pleasure of the roaring crowd, not until then did we learn the statistical truth. Brain damage was diagnosed in 87 percent of donated brains of 202 football players, including all but one of 111 brains of National Football League athletes.

CTE, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, is the term for brain damage that occurs after repeated blunt impact. It commonly occurs in college and high school football as well as among professional players. Aaron Hernandez, the former New England Patriot, suffered from acute CTE, but the NFL assured him that playing was “safe.” He killed himself last April, in the prison cell where he was serving a life-without-parole sentence for a 2013 murder. His death came hours before the Patriots visited the Trump White House to celebrate their latest Super Bowl victory.

It wasn’t feminists who killed him. And they call us man haters?

I leaned in closer to my TV screen, to better see the faces of protesting players last weekend, as the cameras panned close-up after close-up. Surprisingly, all of these large-bodied, over-muscled, brawny men were breathing in short gasps, shaking slightly, while perspiration beaded their faces. But the game hadn’t begun yet. There had been no 50-yard dashes, no tackles, no scrums.

Then I realized what was happening. They were panting and sweating in fear.

Fear for the loss of livelihood, loss of a future, loss of their kids’ education, maybe loss of their wives’ respect—or maybe they were doing this at the insistence of those very wives. Whatever the specifics, they were terrified. They had been trained for the arena, trained to look up at powerful men and pledge a modern version of what gladiators had cried out to the Caesar of their day: “We who are about to die salute you.”

Instead, in that moment, these men were not saluting a Caesar but defying one. In that moment, they were refusing to die for the enrichment and entertainment of sadists. In that moment, they had found something new, in and with each other: a definition of manhood that was simply human. In that moment, watching them tremble yet hold their formation, I loved them as only a man hater could.