I recently shared a few resources that explored the dark side of the World Cup and its organizer, FIFA. Today I'll be sharing some that shine a critical light on American football, and specifically on the NFL. First, I found this terrific and disturbing piece, titled "Plantation Logics at the NFL Combine," in Anthropology News by Tracie Canada, a cultural anthropologist who studies race and sport at Duke University. Her bio specifies that her research highlights "what football, and its Black players, can tell us about power dynamics in the contemporary United States." In her recent Anthropology News piece, she chronicles her experience visiting the NFL Scouting Combine in March 2022, which was held at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. She describes how the combine puts players bodies on display to be measured and judged for their capacity for success on the field. She links this process of quantifying the Black body to its predecessor from plantation slavery:
At the combine, players are dehumanized, talked about as if they are pieces of meat for sale, something that became clear as I followed along with the omnipresent televised commentary in my headphones. This quantifying of the Black body traces back to plantation slavery, as hierarchy between pseudoscientifically determined biological races was rationalized through measurements to highlight physical difference. Skull size, bone density, lung capacity, and nervous systems, among other anatomical features, were studied to downplay Black intelligence and stress Black laboring potential. This race science developed in a way that prompted scholars like W. Montague Cobb to write against the idea that Black athletes were biologically equipped to excel physically.
She also points out how similar logics undergird the processes of evaluating bodies for slavery and for football, and how both are forms of speculation that are tied to similar "capitalist imaginaries":
Sitting in the stands, watching the combine, one might be unaware that these myths of racialized sporting prominence have been dispelled. Here, predominantly Black athletes are evaluated on a number of physical skills and abilities to determine their value to NFL teams. It's a form of speculation, a strategic calculus influenced by the number of draft picks allotted to each team, which teams need to fill certain positions, how much money can be spent to draft players, and which players' bodies might hold up best under strenuous professional play. These decisions question the value of Black labor in the marketplace in a way that is disturbingly reminiscent of how Michael Ralph discusses the ties between slave insurance and life insurance. Black athletes are classified as property and treated as machines, argues Harry Edwards; their performing and productive bodies fuel the league's capitalist imaginary, for as long as those bodies remain physically capable of performing.
Finally, she discusses the exacerbating role of the media's "obsession" with the "Black athletic body":
Such entanglements of labor, capital, and Blackness are supported by the media-fueled obsession with the Black athletic body. The combine has been televised since 2004 on the NFL Network, before moving to the more accessible ABC/ESPN in 2019. These broadcasts are accompanied by constant and cacophonous commentary and analysis from journalists and pundits and former players in newspapers, and on television shows, radio programs, podcasts, blogs, and news websites. Keep in mind that since these players exist in a liminal phase―no longer college players and not yet professional athletes―they are not paid for this labor. But the media frenzy surrounding both the combine and the draft acts as a monetized segue between the college football season―a billion-dollar industry―and the upcoming NFL season. It's a never-ending, yet highly predictable, cyclical spectacle which lasts all year long and depends on laboring Black college-aged men.
Another great resource that critical examines the NFL is Billy Hawkins' book, The New Plantation: Black Athletes, College Sports, and Predominantly White NCAA Institutions. Hawkins is a Professor in the Department of Health and Human Performance at the University of Houston, who specializes in the sociology of sport and cultural studies. Springer Publishers describes the book:
The New Plantation examines the controversial relationship between predominantly White NCAA Division I Institutions (PWI s) and black athletes, utilizing an internal colonial model. It provides a much-needed in-depth analysis to fully comprehend the magnitude of the forces at work that impact black athletes experiences at PWI s. Hawkins provides a conceptual framework for understanding the structural arrangements of PWI s and how they present challenges to Black athletes academic success; yet, challenges some have overcome and gone on to successful careers, while many have succumbed to these prevailing structural arrangements and have not benefited accordingly. The work is a call for academic reform, collective accountability from the communities that bear the burden of nurturing this athletic talent and the institutions that benefit from it, and collective consciousness to the Black male athletes that make of the largest percentage of athletes who generate the most revenue for the NCAA and its member institutions. Its hope is to promote a balanced exchange in the athletic services rendered and the educational services received.
Finally, there's a brand new film by the Media Education Foundation called Behind the Shield: The Power and Politics of the NFL, which features The Nation's sports editor Dave Zirin. MEF describes the film:
We're thrilled to announce the release of Behind the Shield: The Power and Politics of the NFL, featuring acclaimed author and Nation magazine sports editor Dave Zirin. In the film, Zirin tackles the myth that America's most popular and influential sports league was somehow free of politics before Colin Kaepernick and other players took a knee. Navigating a stunning excavation of archival footage and news media, Zirin traces how the NFL, under the guise of "sticking to sports," has promoted militarism, war, and nationalism; glorified reactionary ideas about manhood and gender roles; normalized systemic racism and corporate greed; and helped vilify challenges to the dominant order as "unpatriotic" and inappropriately "political."
I'll end with a quote from a piece that was written by Dave Zirin and published in The Nation on January 3, 2023, the day after Damar Hamlin's awful collapse during the Buffalo Bills vs Cincinnati Bengals game on Monday January 2. In that piece, Zirin recounts that it took 59 minutes for NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to make the call to end the game, and reminds us once again how the NFL chews up and spits out many of its players and specifically its Black players:
The league is about the bottom line, which is why Goodell's instincts told him that the show must go on. But this isn't the Big Apple Circus. It's a gladiatorial combat sport dependent on the Black players, Black bodies, and Black minds who make up 70 percent of the league's players. Denying their humanity is an essential part of the NFL's brand.
Like I said in my piece about FIFA and sportswashing, I'm not saying you shouldn't watch football or support the NFL, but I will argue, again, that if you're going to be a fan, you should at least take responsibility for learning about the organization you're so fond of.