For nine years, football was a major part of my life, or it was the major part of my life — I grew up in Texas, it was all that mattered — but then one day, my last year in high school, a coach of mine called his black players into the locker room, only his black players, and all of that stopped.
Sometimes a thing happened to me while I was playing the game where I forgot, even if only for a moment, that I was who I was and I lived where I lived. I wasn’t religious, but we prayed before every game. Parents cooked us dinners in neighborhoods where, as far as I could tell, no people of color lived. One time a coach called us onto the field, after a pep rally had dissolved into a massive spurt of dancing, and he called us a bunch of faggots, a pack of fucking boy-lovers; and in this way my blackness and my gayness wasn’t muted, or erased, but compartmentalized — for the sake of the game, or for the sake of the white folks I played it with. And I didn’t really mind that, because that was the trade, or at least that’s what I thought at the time.
The field was one reality. You lived in another. You’d catch the pass or make the run and get cheered by the same white families that would report you for hanging around too late in their neighborhood. You’d have your meals paid for by people who wouldn’t save your life with their vote.
In the locker room, there were maybe eight or nine of us. Practice had just ended. Our team’s lone black coach had called us in. It wasn’t something that had happened before, and we glanced at each other, ready for whatever it was.
The coach told us we were a team, all of us, and we had to stick together. But some of us would have to stick a little closer. Because we were the only ones looking out for each other.
At the end of the day, said this coach, pointing at us, all you have is each other. And you have to remember that. Because no one else will, he said, pointing outside. Or they’ll need reminding. You’ll have to remind them.
And then he smiled. And he didn’t say anything after that. And the rest of us looked at each other, like, what the fuck?
Maybe he’d had a shitty day. Or maybe a meeting had gone awry, and he’d brought all of us in to commiserate. But things were different afterwards. Microaggressions were magnified (a punch after a tackle, a dive for the knees). Subtle slights were revealed (an overthrown ball after an argument). And slowly, but all of a sudden, those two worlds merged: who we were, who we really were, and who we’d been told we should be on the field.
Every so often, there’s a moment when the public is forced to remember that black athletes are black people. It is always, somehow, a shock. Sometimes it’s high schoolers who remind us. Sometimes it’s athletes in the prime of their careers. Sometimes, occasionally, it’s someone with a platform so large that ignoring the notion is impossible.
Last August, former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat during the national anthem, unnoticed, for two full weeks, until Niners Nation tweeted out a photo. As the season progressed, a scattering of NFL players joined Kaepernick in solidarity. Attempting to bring attention to black death and police violence cost Kaepernick his job. And this weekend, the president of United States, on the heels of a national disaster in Puerto Rico, took the time to note that “someone ought to get that son of a bitch off the field right now.” What followed were eruptions from around the League. Players knelt and sat from stadium to stadium. Athletes spoke up and knelt down across parallel leagues. Team owners, with varying degrees of authenticity, released their own statements.
Black people are being killed in the streets, in their cars, and in their homes, and black athletes are using their platforms to magnify this, because that is, ultimately, the only way many Americans will care. And that’s a scary thing for the coaches and the administrations and the sponsors and the fans, and perhaps white people in general, because that’s when the veil is lifted. “Our problems” are no longer our problems. Our problems become their problems, become your problems too.
So it’s been illuminating to watch as spectators looked at Kaepernick, and look now at the protests of his peers — which are (or were) being taken as an indictment against police brutality and the devaluation of black lives that’s rampant throughout this country — and assume that he’s rebuking the country itself. Or that they are protesting against the flag, as if this country wasn’t built on the backs of minorities. Or that they are protesting the military, as if veterans and active service members were a singular entity with homogenous views. Or that it’s a protest against the current administration, as if black people only just this year started being shot in the streets. As if this were something that hasn’t happened before.
Kneeling has somehow, tellingly, become a question of patriotism. Or the patriotism of a group of players. Black players. Black people. And the patriotism of one black man in particular, who had the audacity to silently display his opinion.
So many of the people watching football want these players to be their avatars on the field, playing a fantasy onscreen. But what good is an avatar that you can’t control? An avatar that points out your ailments, and refuses to let up?
One time a parent asked me and some friends why we’d even stay in school if we weren’t running the ball. One time I hung around a tutorial session too long and when a coach caught up to me he asked what any of that had to do with me. One time during a game this buddy of mine fumbled the ball and I heard it from the stands, clear as day, a parent or a fan or someone yelled out Fucking nigger. One practice I dropped a ball and this white coach came out of nowhere, asked me what I was good for, what I thought any of us were good for, nothing, if we couldn’t even catch, and then a teammate of mine, a black dude, got right in his face, and he didn’t say anything, he just stood there, and they stared at each other until the coach walked away and we never talked about it afterwards, but it was a lesson in solidarity, it was the beginning of the end.
If you don't recognize that you have a choice not to stand, then the standing becomes a non-action. But rather than seeing the action athletes are taking now and asking why, the response has been fuck, which is a surprise for everyone who wasn’t already aware that black people in this country aren’t usually given the privilege of making the choice at all.
Last season, during the playoffs, my boyfriend and I hit up this bar in New Orleans. We hadn’t gone for the game, but of course it was on. We ended up sitting between this white couple and a trio of black sisters from Canada, and all of us got to talking. The bar was hot. We weren’t quite drunk. The Canadian sisters asked about the game, trying to keep up, but not too seriously, and the couple, who’d flown in from Boston, egged them on, jokingly. The sisters couldn’t quite understand what it was about football that was so interesting — or they totally understood, and it just wasn’t that interesting — and the Bostonians, drunk, shook their heads and started over.
It’s a part of our country, said the white guy, it’s like our country right there on that field.
One sister smiled. Another sister shook her head. And the third sister mentioned that, while this was probably true, wasn’t it also true that this was a little fucked up?
Don’t you auction your players? she said. And isn’t there a protest? For dead black people?
And the Bostonians shook their head, they told her that all this was hurting the game.
OK, said the sister, but they’re dead.
Sure, said the white guy.
They’re dying, said the sister, and the white guy told her that she didn’t get it, couldn’t get it, and also didn’t she just say that she didn’t understand? She shouldn’t try to figure it out now.
You’re right, said the Canadian woman, and she smiled, and her sisters smiled, too, and that was the end of the conversation because what hadn’t been spoken had been conveyed.
Here are some things that will, as ever, remain true: The League will continue to disregard domestic violence among its players. The League will continue to disregard CTE among its current players and veterans. The League will continue to disregard the reality of gay players on its rosters. But the League will probably allow players to stand for their beliefs, until it’s no longer in its best interests, and then it will go out of its way to diminish them. The League will continue to operate in a manner that’s more reminiscent of chattel slavery than any particular sporting endeavor, because it hasn’t stopped fans (yet), and the owners haven’t felt it (yet). Why change the broken thing when no one’s acknowledging that it’s breaking?
The last professional football game I’ll probably ever attend was a match between the Texans and the Titans at NRG Stadium, in 2014, and I wasn’t there to watch or to tailgate or any of that. I was the guy chasing the cars that parked in the wrong spots by the stadium. I was working with Manny, a friend who’d played ball at this other high school. People tipped us or didn’t tip us for leading the trucks to open spaces.
Best play, said Manny, and I told him about this one run I had, during a game that we lost by 30.
Favorite catch, I said, and Manny told me about the time he caught a 40-yard from his freshman quarterback, a guy who went on to play at some school.
But I was out of bounds, said Manny. The coach called me a wetback, he said. But I caught it and that motherfucker couldn’t catch a cold to save his life.
A few years later, I caught up with Manny at this bar, and when I asked him whether he planned on catching the game, he looked at me and shook his head.
I’m done with that, he said. They put a good dude out of a job.
And it isn’t even about football, said Manny. That’s just the only way to make these white folks care.
I asked him what to do about it.
You stay home, he said. You grab the remote and you turn that shit off.
I told him to stop bullshitting. But then, one day, I tried it. I just turned it off. And I found myself doing this later, more and more: just turning it off, or walking out, or switching plans, and it became easier, just like he said. Just like anything else.
In some ways, sports are special in that they create a space, for a finite amount of time, where the variables can be controlled. They are fantasy. And it’s disruptive, to some people, for some groups, that even in fantasy there is oppression. They’d rather not see it. So it doesn’t exist. And when they fight it, and it still shows up, that creates a problem, because the truth is laid bare: that even in the realm of the fantastic, with millions of dollars spent and earned every minute of every game, black life in this country isn’t valued.
I don’t watch the NFL anymore, and it’s doubtful that I’ll ever go out of my way to do that again. But I’ll never stop thinking about it. I’ll never stop thinking about football. Because it is, for all of its danger, and its hypermasculine perversion, and disregard for its players’ bodies, still a beautiful fucking game.
It is beautiful to see a city in the aftermath of destruction unite around a common cause. It is beautiful to watch a Korean-American kicker take his team’s starting position. It is beautiful to watch a group of kids use their platform, however small, to stand up, to kneel, for what they believe in. It is beautiful to watch a team, your city’s team, rally together around a player and the possibility each new season entails, and the notion that this one will be different, this is the one that will land them a place in the history books. That does things for people. It brings them together. Some mornings I used to just wake up, breathe, and know that there was a game that evening and that would be enough.
But also, who gives a shit. Honestly. Truly. Because, at the end of the day, the game will end, and Tamir Rice will keep being dead. You will go home from the stadium, and Michael Brown will keep being dead. You’ll leave the sports bar, and Sandra Bland will keep being dead. You’ll regale your partner with your fantasy league choices, and Philando Castile will keep being dead. You’ll text your best friend your coworker your cousin about the beautiful catch and throw, the bobbled interception, the tightrope on the sideline, lamenting that you’ll have to wait until Sunday for the follow-up, anxious for what’s to come, and the dead black woman, the dead black man, the dead black kids will keep being dead, their stories will have ended, and your game will be on again next week. ●
Bryan Washington is a writer from Houston. His first collection of stories, Lot, is forthcoming from Riverhead Books.