Countless institutions have been strained in 2020. Coronavirus has shuttered business and shattered marriages. Following the death of George Floyd, denunciations, resignations, and firings spread across newspapers, corporations, and universities. These intertwining crises pose a special threat to one of America’s most popular sports: football.
Football’s glory is based on risk. Its fans thrill to the breathtaking interplay of graceful motion and crushing force, exultant speed and grim immobility. At times the risks run by players are deemed unacceptable. Helmets, padding, and rule changes have sought to bring the risks of the sport within reasonable limits. Even so, football’s basic appeal remains. It trains men in fortitude. It teaches them that risk is required for victory.
Football’s ethic runs counter to the values that have been elevated in the battle against coronavirus. “Safety is our number one priority” has become a national refrain, repeated by politicians, public health officials, university administrators and cable hosts. The conflict between those who prioritise safety and those who accept risk has been especially intense within the Big Ten, the college football conference (league) with the most storied history and the highest revenues.
After university administrators voted to cancel the Big Ten’s football season, players and coaches led an unprecedented rebellion. Justin Fields, the starting quarterback of Ohio State, started an online petition urging reinstatement of the season. It attracted hundreds of thousands of signatures. The entire administration of the University of Nebraska, backed by the state’s governor and attorney general, protested the conference’s decision and initiated a series of legal gambits that kept up the pressure. The motto of the movement was “Let them play”.
The Big Ten commissioner insisted that the decision would “not be revisited”. Yet in late September, the conference reversed course and announced a delayed, shortened season. It cited new rapid testing as justification, but it seems clear that more than technical advances had determined this outcome. A battle of ideals had played out. Geographic and cultural realities had asserted themselves. The University of Nebraska, representing a rural and conservative state, is a recent addition to the Big Ten. Its former peers in the Big Twelve conference never cancelled their season. Ohio State, for its part, has been more like a Southeast Conference team – unabashed in its prioritisation of football over all else – ever since it hired Urban Meyer, himself a former coach in the SEC.
The conflict can be seen, then, as a rebellion led by the most “southern” and “western” teams in the Big Ten, a rebellion the northern bluebloods eventually joined. Or it may be seen as a confrontation between players and coaches on one side, and administrators and health officials on the other. In both cases, the conflict was over the acceptability of risk. The gap between the ethic of football and the ethic of safety exposed the Big Ten conference to confusion, incoherence, and embarrassment.
There is another, deeper conflict besetting football, one that has intensified since the death of George Floyd. Football games, especially in the National Football League, had evolved into patriotic celebrations, with fighter jet flyovers, military ceremonies and field-spanning flags. These observances could be called vulgar, but they resonated with the spirit of sport, which appeals to loyalty to one’s teammates, family, and locality. Fandom is passed down from father to son. It is reinforced at school and on the playground. It is tenaciously retained by people who move away but want to maintain some connection to home. Patriotic display came naturally at football games.
But supporters of Black Lives Matter, inspired by Colin Kaepernick, have set their cause in opposition to the flag. In doing so they have set up a collision between players and fans, especially at the professional level. Probably no other sport presents such a wide culture gap as that between the relatively black and progressive players of the NFL and their relatively white and conservative fans. The NFL responded to the Black Lives Matter demonstrations by announcing that week-one games would start with the Black National Anthem. Viewership was down by 16 per cent compared to the beginning of last season.
Football has not always been the most popular sport in America. Horse racing, boxing and baseball all were once far more popular. It seems likely that the gap between football’s celebration of risk and our insistence on safety will weaken the sport and narrow its appeal. The same is true on racial matters. Heightened racial consciousness among both blacks and whites, which is being encouraged by antiracists such as Robin DiAngelo and Ibram X Kendi, will make it harder for football to bring together the people it once united.
However humble and imperfect they may be, we are going to miss our common loves.