Sunday, October 23, 2016

A Football Fantasy: Sociological Reflections on Race and the Uneven Playing Field

Imagine playing football on a field where the home team has the advantage of playing on a downhill slope, and with the wind and sun at their backs, and where the visiting team’s side of the field is marked in twenty yard increments rather than ten, so that they must move the ball twice the distance of the home field to score a touchdown. Would you say this game is being played on a level playing field with fair rules?

Obviously, players in such a game would not have equal chances to succeed, but what if the home team was also unaware of their unfair advantages? What if the game was being played on a foggy day and the home team could not see the unequal slope of the field, or feel the surging winds blowing in the face of their opponent? Would players on this team feel as proud of their victory under such conditions?

Imagining a football game being played this way, under these unfair conditions, is difficult for most of us because we expect fair play when we compete, and we are surprised to learn that such unfair conditions could even exist because we have not played such a game before. But some Americans are quite familiar with these rules and, even though they play anyway, they might harbor a certain resentment toward the rule makers, or even the opposing team’s players who had no part in making those rules, especially when the home team players claim that the game was fair all along. 

Now imagine that the home team’s referee wants the home team to win, so she calls more penalties on the visiting team to keep them from scoring. Which team would be more upset about those bad calls on the field? If you found yourself on the visiting team forced to play this unfair game, who would you resent more, the referee for making bad calls on the field, the rule makers for creating a game with such unequal advantage, or the home field players for not acknowledging their advantage when they win a game that’s been fixed?

Or would you just be pissed at Colin Kaepernick and the Millikin football team for the manner in which they brought the issue to your attention? 

We need to remember that the whole point of these demonstrations is to raise awareness about all the unfair, discriminatory types of racism in the criminal justice system toward African-Americans, including police brutality. In a country that prides itself on freedom of expression, why are we obsessing over the form of that expression rather than the issue at hand? We seem to have forgotten the most basic civil right that formed the foundation of our national heritage - the freedom to protest peacefully. Instead, we seem to have adopted a form of Nazi patriotism, where flag waving is mandatory, and where one person (or one team) is condemned for exercising their American right to peacefully dissent in whatever way they choose. Isn’t this ideal the very right our soldiers have fought and died for? Isn’t this why this ideal was established in the FIRST amendment, and not the second or twelfth? Sadly, some have succumbed to conservative political correctness over America’s proud heritage of freedom of speech, in a country that been a beacon of openness to ideas, including those ideas that sometime offend us.

The “controversy” over Kaepernick’s refusal to stand during the national anthem exposes our nation’s ignorance of the game itself, more than it does his audacity to do so. The negative reaction to our own Big Blue football team to remain in the locker room during the national anthem, showing respect through individual silent reflection (or one player’s decision to stand), likewise underscores our national deflection of the real issue of racial inequality more than it does the Fox News narrative that Millikin must hate America and its soldiers.

Like many of you, I found myself having to defend Millikin’s decision to support the team, after the social media blitz that followed soon after Fox News and other conservative media outlets sacked us for doing it. On Facebook, for example, I was scolded for working at such an unpatriotic school, and “one of the most black and liberal colleges around”. I mean, just read the comments underneath the original article from Fox News and you’ll see the outrage of some voices in conservative, white America over everything except what the demonstrations of Kaepernick and our football team are all about. They are way out of bounds in this regard. Across the country, and across most sports, athletes are expressing their concern over racial injustice in the criminal justice system. Even superstars like women’s soccer phenom (and former sociology major of mine at the University of Portland :), Megan Rapinoe, who continues her solo demonstration. Listen to her defend her anthem-kneeling here.  

So let’s get back in the game. Let’s talk about the central issue - the unjust system of criminal justice in this country – the racially systemic problems inherent in our system that the Black Lives Matter movement has been so successful at elevating to a national conversation (and why police departments across the country are currently reforming their police conduct practices following federal investigations by the Department of Justice in both Ferguson and Baltimore after the BLM outcry). And let’s talk about the reasons why Kaepernick’s mere kneeling, or our school’s support of our team’s decision to offer our players the freedom to express themselves how they wish, has agitated so many people around the country. A sociological perspective can help us better understand the game we are really playing here.

As white people we don’t readily see our advantages, and we are often perplexed by the visiting team’s outrage over injustice on the field of play because we do not suffer those injustices nearly as often. Have you ever watched a tight game with a friend who roots for the other team, and noticed how much more upset he gets when the referee fails to drop a flag for defensive pass interference when your team just scored on that play? It’s kinda like that.

Maybe it’s just easier to blame the game’s losers. As Michelle Alexander points out in her recent book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, we throw far more penalty flags at African-Americans than Whites for similar infractions, disproportionately targeting one team over another, resulting in systemic disadvantages that keep one team from winning, an intentional function of the modern criminal justice system. If you happen to have been born on the winning team, and fail to see the advantages your team has been given, you might take the time to read her book, or consider the volumes of scholarship on the subject of racial injustice in our criminal justice system, such as these several hundred, peer-reviewed studies that say the same thing.  Or you could listen to the voices of history that remind us of the true nature and scope of persistent racism in America, voices largely absent in traditional history classes, such as Frederick Douglass who said in 1853:

“A heavy and cruel hand has been laid upon us. As a people, we feel ourselves to be not only deeply injured, but grossly misunderstood. Our White countrymen do not know us. They are strangers to our character, ignorant of our capacity, oblivious to our history and progress, and are misinformed as to our principles and ideals that guide us as a people. The great mass of American citizens estimates us as a characterless and purposeless people and, hence, we hold up our heads, if at all, against the withering influence of a nations’ scorn and contempt.”

And finally, if you are a visual learner, I implore you to watch a new documentary on Netflix entitled, “13th for a powerful, eye-opening examination of racism in the criminal justice system, where reputable experts in the field examine this form of institutional racism with a historical lens.

Ironically, most of those who should probably educate themselves on these facts won’t bother with it, exercising their privilege to ignore the facts about that very privilege. They don’t need to bother with trying to understand how American life is experienced differently by Black men and women in America because they have never really felt this experience, and because they feel they are not directly affected by it. This is one form of white privilege: the privilege of not having to educate yourself about the minority experience in America. It is the privilege of ignorance.

Instead, as white Americans, we use our privilege to deflect the national conversation from these uncomfortable facts toward a tangential conversation about patriotism and how it ought to be publicly displayed, uniformly. Of course, we should be proud to be Americans, but our national pride should not discourage outrage over injustice no matter how we choose to voice it. So, for example, instead of acknowledging the anger expressed by a student like LeRyan Wolfe, who has written several heart-felt essays on the subject of white privilege recently, we can avoid facing it by slamming him for the “offensive” words he’s used to call out the uncomfortable subject of racism, or by dismissing his opinion as just that of another “angry Black man”, which is another form of privileged deflection. He’s just being a bad sport about it, complaining about the rules of the game. That’s what “people like that” do.

But what LeRyan is really trying to do is to call a foul in a game being played on an uneven playing field, with referees who are paid by the home team. The referees in this game are the police officers patrolling the streets of our community, and the uneven field we are playing on is our criminal justice system. So even though the referees are not to blame for the rules of the game, we can understand why the visiting team might be angry with them for favoring their home team – as misplaced as that anger may be - because they represent this historical injustice. And as spectators we should at least be honest enough to recognize our team’s unfair advantage when the referees make bad calls that cause the other team to lose.

And we shouldn’t be so vexed when the other team takes a knee.

Kenneth Laundra, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Sociology
Department of Sociology & Organizational Leadership