Why are we so mad about football?

A year characterized by polarization has thrown the contradictions in America’s biggest sport into even sharper relief. 

Craig Ruttle/AP
Supporters of unsigned NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick – a center of controversy since he kneeled during the national anthem a little more than a year ago – mingle with passersby in front of NFL headquarters in New York last month.

People are angry about Colin Kaepernick. They just don’t agree on why.

Julie Page Morgan, from Arkansas, says she doesn’t watch the National Football League anymore in part because of the “sick disrespect” of players taking a knee or refusing to stand during the national anthem. Mr. Kaepernick’s decision to begin this trend last year was a publicity stunt, she says.

“He said he did it to show ‘solidarity’ with oppressed individuals in America,” she writes in an email. “No, he did it so they’d like him again. He hoped minorities would besiege his team’s owners to let him start as quarterback again despite his lack of talent.”

And the players now following Kaepernick’s lead? “All to garner attention to themselves, so they could be perceived as identifying with poor blacks in America,” she says.

Yet last week, hundreds of people protested outside the NFL’s New York offices in support of the quarterback, who has been out of a job since the end of last season. Many critics have accused teams and owners of colluding against him because of his politics. More than 175,000 people have signed a change.org petition pledging to boycott the league if Kaepernick doesn’t play this season.

“It is obvious ... that Colin Kaepernick is qualified to be at least an NFL backup,” longtime fan Jordan Starck writes in an open letter to the NFL, shared with The Christian Science Monitor. “The absurdity with which clubs like the Ravens maneuver to avoid signing him point to his political beliefs as a significant factor in his unemployment.”

Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP/File
From left, San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker Eli Harold, quarterback Colin Kaepernick, center, and safety Eric Reid kneel during the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Dallas Cowboys in Santa Clara, Calif., Oct. 2, 2016. What started as a protest against police brutality has mushroomed a year later into a divisive debate over the future of Kaepernick, who refused to stand for the national anthem and now faces what his fans see as blackballing for speaking out in a country roiled by racial strife.

For a league that goes to enormous lengths to enforce conformity and limit controversy – with rules governing everything from touchdown celebrations to shoelace color – the Kaepernick situation is a catastrophe. But it is not the only one. From domestic abuse to concerns over concussions, the NFL is increasingly being sucked into uncomfortable cultural territory.

On one hand, it’s a testament to the game’s pervasiveness in American life. But at a time when the country is struggling to overcome divisiveness, the NFL faces a serious challenge. To this point, it has been able to maintain its preeminent place in American sports. But there some signs that controversies might be catching up to the league – and this season is shaping up to the most fraught in years, if not decades.

“The NFL and football is always political because different groups are always trying to shape different meanings from the league,” says Tom Oates, a media studies professor at the University of Iowa and the author of the book “Football and Manliness.” “Right now it’s easy to see because politics feel particularly urgent to people.”

Dave Gowin, a 49ers fan, just wants the players to play football.

“The NFL is a sport that people pay a lot of money to attend and support,” he says. “[They] should not be subject to the players political views that may offend them.”

Many fans agree with him. Polls last year showed that a majority of Americans disapproved of Kaepernick’s protests. But others see things differently. Just as there has been a backlash against overt politics among players, there is a backlash against what are seen as the more inhuman aspects of the game.

Zach Furness, whose late father played and coached for the Pittsburgh Steelers, says when he sees players collide on the field, “I feel like I’m watching permanent head injuries happen in real time.”

The concussion issue is already having long-term consequences for the game. Since 2009, participation in tackle football among 6- to 12-year-old boys has dropped 20 percent, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association.

So, too, there is unease about players’ behavior off the field – particularly with regard to the treatment of women.

Yet football’s cultural pull has so far proved stronger.

When Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger returned to the field after having a rape charge dropped against him in 2010, “there were all these little girls wearing pink Roethlisberger jerseys,” notes Danielle Coombs, a professor at Kent State who researches football’s female fan base. “It was completely nuts. But you want to believe the best in your heroes.”

Even Mr. Furness, who worries about concussions, acknowledges “there’s still that part of me that has been acculturated into football.”

For many, “football is a part of your family traditions,” says Professor Coombs. “It’s a heritage thing, we pass it on to our children. [Abandoning that] feels like turning your back on something that’s really important to you. We too often compare sports and religion, but it’s like turning your back on the Catholic Church. The psychology of it is similar.”

Adds Professor Oates of Iowa: “If not watching means passing up an opportunity to catch up with friends or hang out with your dad, it’s hard to pass that up.”

The NFL’s popularity has proven resilient. The ratings for this year’s Super Bowl were better than average. But last year, regular season ratings took took a dip before growing stronger as the season wore on. Though some attribute the decline to a backlash against Kaepernick’s protests, the reasons for the decline are unclear. But they show potential vulnerability at a time of upheaval.

Mr. Starck, who wrote the protest letter to the NFL, has rooted for the Vikings since he was 8. He describes himself as “the fan whose primary TV station is NFL Network, who subscribes to GamePass to evaluate our roster in the offseason, who researches college players in preparation for the draft,... who manages fantasy leagues, who buys the new Madden [football video game] each August.”

But recently, he’s found the league’s handling of things such as the Kaepernick issue and the inherent violence of the game hard to swallow. He’s also grown increasingly uncomfortable with what he sees as the racial power imbalance of the NFL, with a player base that is 70 percent black and an ownership and coaching fraternity that is overwhelming white.

That perception, or the rejection of it, is at the heart of what divides people on Kaepernick, and it reflects larger debates around Black Lives Matter and recent protests, says Oates. To those who back the owners, the league is a business, not a platform for cultural commentary. To those who back the players, there is an apparent double-standard.

“Owners make collective political statements all the time, in the league’s connections to the military, the expressions of nationalism. It doesn’t appear political in the same way as when a player uses his position to make a statement,” he says. “The Kaepernick outrage is a reflection of those power dynamics. In the eyes of many fans, he should have a prerogative in the same ways the owners do.”  

The question for this year is how much players will push that envelope. “I think players, there will be a spotlight on them in such a way that people who want to raise larger social concerns can do so,” says Furness, who co-edited a collection of academic essays on the NFL with Oates.

For his part, Starck says he’s done with football until Kaepernick gets a job. 

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