What the conservatism of American football and the liberalism of basketball says about Americaby Benjamin Markovits / October 16, 2018 / Leave a comment
In one of CS Forester’s Hornblower novels, I can’t remember which (maybe a Prospect reader can help me), he talks about the scorn that soldiers and sailors felt for each other in England during the French Revolution. From a soldier’s point of view, seamen are sloppy individualists, who do their work in a ragged, undisciplined way. Soldiers, meanwhile, seem stiff and regimented to a sailor. They’re neat freaks who can’t act for themselves.
I was thinking of this distinction because of Beto O’Rourke. The US midterm elections are coming, and in my home state of Texas, O’Rourke is the Democratic challenger to the hard-line Republican US Senator Ted Cruz. O’Rourke was asked at one of his rallies about the practice of American footballers “taking a knee”—kneeling during the pre-match national anthem, in protest against police brutality and racial inequality.
Some fans, including the president, consider it disrespectful, especially to veterans and active members of the armed forces. But over 14m people have watched O’Rourke’s response, which argues that it belongs to an honourable tradition of African-American protest.
The player who started “taking a knee” is Colin Kaepernick, the former quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers. He’s been out of work since March 2017, which is suggestive, to say the least.
Quarterback is the most important position on an American football team—they are the on-field decision-maker and a leader in the dressing room—and Kaepernick has consistently been one of the more efficient performers. (These things are hard to measure, but his “passer rating” would make him the 16th best quarterback of all time.) He’s suing the NFL for the alleged collusion of its owners in refusing to hire him, and has won the right to pursue compensation.
Conservative football, liberal basketball
American football lends itself to military metaphor—this itself has become a kind of cliché. Games are won in the trenches, the battle is between offensive and defensive lines. Coaching strategy suggests troop movements—like outflanking opponents—and the complex plays require players who are willing to follow orders, exactly, to the moment and the letter—like Hornblower’s soldiers.
So it makes sense that the league comes across as basically conservative. Two of its most influential owners, Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys and Robert Kraft of the New England Patriots, are supporters of Donald Trump and the president has weighed in on the debate, in predictable fashion (“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!’”), and probably helped Kaepernick’s case.
Basketball, on the other hand, is the Nelson’s navy of American sports leagues. Teams are small, a few stars can make the difference between winning and losing, it’s a game for individualists, where the balance of power between labour and management is evenly balanced.
LeBron James has reached a level of influence where he can basically pick whoever he wants to play for, and turn them into contenders. (This year it’s the LA Lakers.) He’s also been a consistent and powerful voice on matters beyond the basketball court. And the result is a league that has a pretty strong record on liberal issues. When North Carolina passed a “bathroom bill,” to stop transgender people from using the loos of their choice, the NBA withdrew the All-Star game from Charlotte, the state’s largest city. Last year, North Carolina repealed the law.
As Britain knows well, there are huge class and social differences in who plays different sports. Other cultural differences between those who play them professionally are just structural; people will respond to incentives.
An American football team keeps 53 players on the roster. Many come and go, there’s a huge turnover. It’s not surprising that the power hierarchies tend to be rigid—nor that Kaepernick, as a quarterback, was the first to take a knee. But perhaps there is also something in the rules and the playing of the game itself that produces the political and psychological differences—attitudes to authority, to individualism, to discipline, the old contrast between soldiers and sailors.
O’Rourke, as it happens, captained his rowing crew at Columbia. I don’t know what this tells us, but I hope he wins on 6th November.