Football and the Culture Wars

Charlotte, NC - September 18, 2016: San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) walks off the field at Bank of America Stadium with his fist up in the air after their game against the Panthers.(Gerry Melendez for ESPN)

The Culture Wars in America continue as more than 100 NFL players protested by kneeling, sitting, or raising their fists during the national anthem. The display was very clearly motivated in response to remarks made by President Trump in Huntsville, AL (and subsequent tweets), where he expressed his desire that players who disrespect the flag and the anthem should be punished by team owners. Trump’s remarks reignited the debate around the place of politics in sports a year after Colin Kaepernick made a name (but maybe lost a career) for himself by refusing to stand for the anthem.

The recent developments bring together several interesting issues that continue to divide the country including freedom of speech, patriotism, and (the lack of) shared moral/cultural norms.

Let’s start with freedom of speech. Do professional athletes have the right to express political opinions without penalty in their capacity as an employee of a privately-owned league? It seems obvious that they do not. Critics of free speech advocates are quick to point out that there is no right to a platform for one’s speech (see this dreary but ubiquitous xkcd meme). But these critics often fail to notice the extent to which norms of free speech also depend on a culture of free speech wherein people not only have a right to express their views—free from government censorship—but feel comfortable doing so in the social mileu. Arguably, however, this culture of free expression is unsuitable to the business model of professional sports, especially the NFL, which is a league that has branded itself with patriotism. The NFL knows this, of course, which is why Kaepernick remains out of a job (or maybe he’s just a bad QB). But after the recent protests, it seems that the league is also trying to appeal to the smaller percentage of its audience that welcomes the loud rebuke of the President’s actions. How else could we interpret the number of kneelers going from a handful of players one week, to hundreds the next? Indeed, the protests seem politically motivated rather than principled. But unless things have changed considerably since last year, the NFL players are playing right into Trump’s hands and we’ll likely continue to see the protests dwindle.

What about patriotism? Is it disrespectful to the flag and anthem to refuse to stand? Many on the left would revive the old slogan from the Bush years that “dissent is the highest form of patriotism.” It’s because Kaepernick and others love their country that they feel compelled to protest the injustices that prevent a more perfect union. The sentiment is right. Patriotism should be grounded in love for what makes a country great because such things are worthy of love in the first place, not out of blind obedience. However, by ostensibly protesting symbols that many have sacrificed their lives to defend–symbols we should all be able to stand for–dissent looks a lot more like disrespect. We can agree that dissent is essential to American ideals. But rights come with responsibilities. Using dissent to undermine shared symbols (even if unintended) fails to carry on the tradition of discourse that is made possible by the institutions represented by those symbols.

This form of dissent is not particularly effective either; it just further divides the country over what used to be a venue for nonpolitical escapism. The claim that the show of solidarity was necessary to respond to the divisiveness of Trump’s remarks is also puzzling, given that Kaepernick began this whole ordeal last year, proclaiming that “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” While many Americans may appreciate the sentiment, his chosen tactic for expressing the sentiment has only sown more division.

In any case, Trump appears intent on rallying the majority of Americans who still believe in honoring these shared symbols and values. That these values still resonate, even in the din of divisive rhetoric, is nicely illustrated by this video of a Black Lives Matter activist being invited to speak to a group of Trump supporters in Boston. If you listen to the lines cheered by the crowd, it’s clear that there is a baseline, non-ideological form of patriotism that both sides agree on, i.e. things that the flag and anthem represent (e.g. we are all Americans, we can join together to solve social problems, people should be fired for doing their jobs badly, God given rights, etc.). Sports used to be a venue where we could pay tribute to that kind of patriotism, to express gratitude for a country that allows agreeable diversions like sports to flourish. This is what allows us to get on with the showcasing the blend of cooperation and competition that brings enemies, on the field, to shake hands after the game. Sadly, this norm of cooperation—so beautifully modeled in sports—is sorely lacking in our political (and cultural) lives.

If we can’t come together through sports or in brief moments of observing respect for shared national symbols, it is very difficult to see a way out of the political/cultural divisions of this country. We need ways of relating to each other that adopt the friendly relations of shared citizens based on classically American values and moral norms. Comparatively speaking, America remains the greatest (albeit imperfect) country on earth. Those who point out imperfections are right to do so. But America is not made more perfect by refusing to stand for the few remaining symbols that bring its people together. That behavior undermines one of the few nonpolitical diversions that we share.

Lucius Vorenus

Lucius Vorenus is a philosopher somewhere in the United States. He thinks academic philosophy is long overdue for a shake up.

View All Posts


  1. “We need ways of relating to each other that adopt the friendly relations of shared citizens based on classically American values and moral norms. ”

    Who needs that? The blacks don’t need or want that The Mexicans don’t need or want that The Muslims don’t need or want that. They want to take over white American civilization. Whatever “classically American values” are, no one with any influence or control cares much about them anymore. And with an increasingly marginalized, openly hated, and soon-to-be-minority population of whites, that’s not going to change.

    So, I’m curious about who is the intended audience of a blog post like this? The non-whites who don’t care what you are saying and just want control? The cuckold whites who have accepted their subservient and self-flagellating role? Or the whites who mostly agree with you but lack any significant ability to stop the anti-white forces in play? And, if the latter, why should they keep trying, futilely, to get along with a growing group of hostile non-whites?

  2. My claim is that “we”, i.e. Americans, need shared values. If you don’t think the first person plural pronoun can be meaningfully used without mentioning what you think different identity groups “need or want”, then the problem is much deeper than what I have suggested. I agree that there are identity clashes at stake. But I see those as something to be overcome, not to be won in favor of one particular group.

    • “I agree that there are identity clashes at stake. But I see those as something to be overcome, not to be won in favor of one particular group.”

      Do you see sexual differences as something that should be “overcome”? What about difference in species? Why not just accept what seems fairly obvious: that there are deep and important racial differences, that people care about them and naturally identify with and support their own racial groups, and that trying to “overcome” them is an attempt to force people to live in unnatural and unstable ways that will never work out?

    • I don’t believe sexual or species differences are on a par with racial differences, if indeed there are any. What do you regard as the “deep and important racial differences”? Can you meaningfully distinguish them from cultural differences? You may be right that modern experiments in diverse racial populations occupying a single political community are not stable in the long term. But I think it is premature to conclude that.

    • “I don’t believe sexual or species differences are on a par with racial differences, if indeed there are any. What do you regard as the “deep and important racial differences”? Can you meaningfully distinguish them from cultural differences?”

      It’s interesting how “conservatives” take this super cautious, skeptical attitude about racial differences that they don’t take for all kinds of other things (e.g., the effects of gun ownership, the destructive effects of free markets, the harmful effects of various military policies). They typically are very convinced and prepared to act on all kinds of principles or beliefs that are based on extremely complicated and confusing empirical and moral bases. And they are quite prepared to promote the “conservative” vision that they hold.

      But when it comes to the idea that there are actually racial differences, slow down! We don’t have conclusive evidence for that. And we wouldn’t want to “prematurely” conclude that multi-racial societies are not stable or healthy. Let’s just see how it plays out. Let’s invite hordes of Africans, Arabs, Indians, and Chinese in and just hope it all works out despite the obvious signs it isn’t going to. That’s “conservative”.

  3. No mention that the “narratives” the protesting gestures are based on (hands up, don’t shoot, disproportionate police shootings) is false?

  4. Well said.

    I think at one level sports and patriotism can be a substitute for religion. And I think this is definitely the case in professional American football. It’s essentially organized idolatry.

    But at a mundane level, pro football is a business enterprise, and currently we have a situation where athletes, managers, and owners are snubbing their customer base. That has predictable consequences, hence the reduced ratings, season ticket returns, jersey burnings, and unfortunately even threats of violence.

    Trump is probably stoking populist fervor to a degree, but more importantly I suspect many regular, blue-collar working class Americans simply resent the protests because they see this as yet another example of secular progressives infiltrating and co-opting every social institution. “The Deplorables” aren’t uninformed. They understand secular progressives have a strategy of taking over every social institution, to make it a vehicle for their political agenda. The unwashed masses in flyover country are then required to submit to their ideology. Consider how ESPN was gratuitously commandeered to propagandize for the LGBT agenda a la Bruce Jenner. I think this is fueling the popular backlash. 

    Moreover, the cultural situation has in reality become threatening. Under the Obama administration, executive agencies were commandeered to impose a secular progressive agenda on the nation. In addition, major corporations (e.g. Facebook, Google) have allied with the gov’t in steamrolling critics. That endangers the civil liberties of many Americans. There’s no escape. It’s like the Borg, “Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated!”

    Another reason many Americans resent athletes protesting the national anthem/saluting the flag is because they reject the BLM narrative as a factually false narrative. They deny that police in general discriminate against blacks. 

    But this is a common tactic of secular progressives. They build on a false premise. At the very least, their narrative is highly contestable. For instance:

    Yet we’re simply supposed to grant their contention as an indisputable starting-point.

    The Leftists forget free speech is a two-way street. Protest is a two-way street. Sports fans are entitled to counterprotest. And ultimately it’s the fans who pay the bills. There’s no prohibition against private boycotts. Consider the boycott MLK organized against segregated bussing.

    Obviously te players aren’t being paid to stand for the anthem, salute the flag. But *football fans* ultimately pay their salaries (we could quibble that it’s advertisers, but that simply moves the argument back one step since the advertisers are obviously advertising for the dollars of the fans), and the customer base has no obligation to subsidize the players’ protest if the customer base doesn’t share their politics.

    It’s simple free-market capitalism, which of course the Leftists also hate.

  5. “My argument is that even if those narratives were accurate, the response is not the right one.” – Yes, I understand. But it’s a lot easier to demonstrate their facts are just wrong, and destroy the basis of their protest, than to argue about what is an appropriate form of protest. If police really were systematic racists committing gradual genocide against blacks, that would be a huge problem for the nation, and your points about the “wrong” way to protest would not seem that compelling.

  6. “I agree that there are identity clashes at stake. But I see those as something to be overcome, not to be won in favor of one particular group.”

    Even if there were no natural racial differences, it would still be true that ethnocentrism is pretty much universal across all cultures–except the culture of modern white westerners. Almost every other culture has always taken for granted that the best thing is for one’s own group to _win_ against rivals and enemies. When has the black community _ever_ refused to support some black criminal? Where is the movement of normal black people pointing out the obvious fact that Michael Brown was trying to kill a cop for no reason? It’s never happened, and it never will. So the rest of us need to figure out some realistic way of dealing with this black culture, which is almost certainly not going to change. Perhaps it really is time to consider how whites, or non-blacks at least, could _win_ this conflict.

  7. Patriotism should be grounded in love for what makes a country great because such things are worthy of love in the first place, not out of blind obedience

    This seems off or at least lacking. Patriotism is love of country not love of some hypothetical country. One should love his country because it is his country in much the same way that parents love their own children because they are their children. I find it hard to believe that an Obama sentiment of “we are five days away from fundamentaly transforming the United States of America” shows any love of the United States our traditions, culture or the historic American people. It’s like saying “I love my wife but I want to change everything about her”.

    • Yes, I was speaking generally. Perhaps I should have substituted “one’s country” for “a country” to account for the idea you expressed. Your statement seems stronger than what I have indicated though. Do you think patriotism requires something like unconditional love? We aren’t puzzled when a mother continues to love her son, even though the son may have committed some great evil. I suppose it isn’t too far fetched to extend that idea. But I’m not sure.

  8. I think there is a real tension between patriotism and blind obedience. How could a German citizen love their country during WWII and what would an act of love look like? In this case it is plausible that dissent is the highest form of patriotism and I would make this case because love is to “will the good of another”, which in this case would mean to will what is actually good for Germany.

    Now do the NFL players honestly will what is good for America? Does the act of disrespecting the flag and national anthem show this? I don’t think so. The protest is based on lies. It is simply untrue that America oppresses “people of color” and to hear this from rich athletes who make their money playing a game for a living is a further insult.

Leave a Reply (Be sure to read our comment disclaimer)