Sports Media for Social Change

People know what they do; frequently they know why they do what they do; but what they don’t know is what what they do does.

? Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason

After Colin Kaepernick’s courageous national anthem protest caught the attention of the controversy-seeking corporate sports media, an exciting phenomenon has quickly emerged. Sports media is going through a transformation. The pundits and athletes, mostly African Americans, for now, are discussing police brutality against minorities, militarism, and other socio-political issues. They are talking about inequality in America, need for compassion, and calling for social change. And they are building a discourse with eloquence and in polemic fashion. They are going beyond the practical. It is not just the X’s and O’s and lucrative contracts but social justice stories on the screens and in print. The Sports zeitgeist is rapidly changing and it can catch fire with the rest of civil society. Many of America’s future movers and shakers, the Millennials, do not trust political leaders, but they trust sports media. Sometimes solidarity is built inadvertently. This time may just be under the umbrella of football.

Football is a quintessential American sport and a permanent fixture of our culture. For several decades, the conservative overlords of the sport had managed to intertwine football with their brand of Christianity and militarism. In fact, in some states football is a religion, competing fiercely with the church in the hierarchy of their citizens’ collective value system–Texas comes to mind. As the culture industry transformed collegiate and professional football from sport to lucrative commercial product, capitalism trumped racism at the labor level and this structurally white supremacist entity became a cash cow monster of neoliberalism. Today in the NFL the game is played by mostly black athletes, in the upwards of 70% and many of the coaches are also black. But the percentage of black team owners is a conspicuous 0%, minor limited partnership of a few African Americans like the Williams sisters owning a tiny part of Miami Dolphins notwithstanding. In fact, Michael Jordan of the Charlotte Bobcats is the only African American principal owner of any professional sports in America.

For a long time, the professional athletes, particularly football players, were quite disciplined in remaining within their “professional” zone and not crossing boundaries to become engaged citizens with an intellectual and activist voice. After all, that was not good for business. And violators were punished swiftly by losing their careers. The case of the NBA player, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, is a glaring example of this type of punitive policy. Given today’s social conditions, it is safe to say that ship is sailing away fast.

Initially, the corporate sports media executives in charge had a goal of manufacturing controversy around Kaepernick to boost the TV ratings and web viewing for an otherwise boring NFL preseason. And the predictable racist backlash against Kaepernick under the conduit of “patriotism” helped them attain their goal. But it did not take very long for the activist-minded citizens, some of whom being military veterans, some former prominent athletes like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and many current sports figures, along with other ordinary sports loving Americans—in short, civil society—to turn the tables on corporate sports media and radically change the agenda.

What we are witnessing on ESPN, FOX sports, and several sports talk shows on radio, along with print sports media is a myriad of honest and bold discussions about police brutality, naked and structural racism, xenophobia, the very meaning of patriotism, and even exploitation of labor. To Kaepernick’s credit, he was prepared and had done his homework. He has been responding eloquently to questions by corporate media and with confidence of a well-informed citizen. He and others are shattering some stereotypes about black athletes in America. They are demonstrating that they are smart, articulate, ethical, and what is more, courageous to risk their careers, speaking truth to power. The discourse that is developing by Colin Kaepernick, Eric Reid, Richard Sherman, Shannon Sharpe, Stephen A. Smith, Michael Eric Dyson, Dave Zirin of The Nation magazine, and others is no flash in the pan. These are radicalized members of civil society who, due to their abilities and public positions, have the platform to shift the power. A new zeitgeist is coming and when an idea’s time arrives nothing can stop it.

The fact of the matter is that all of us are entangled with the web of power. But there are opportunities where we can take action and shift our position from having little power to become an enormous collective paradigm-shifting force. Even Barack Obama gave an implicit signal to civil society to go and seize the moment when he spoke to an international press about Colin Kaepernick exercising his rights to protest and draw attention to “some issues that need to be talked about.”

The current sports media transformation is a teaching moment in our history. In the United States of America, we live in a media culture. Moreover, for most Americans, the primary sites of pedagogy are no longer classrooms, churches, and the dinner tables at home. Those are secondary sites at best and irrelevant at worst. The most powerful and effective sites of pedagogy are operating under the jurisdiction of culture industry. The real teaching machines are professional sports, movies, video games, TV programs, and other cyber entertainment entities such as porn sites. They set the agenda for us, but we can, in turn, transform the agenda.

If we strive for social change we must not wait for our political leaders and media executives, beholden to their corporate overlords, to suddenly wake up one day and decide they want to produce a functioning democracy where they can implement policies that foster equality and fairness for all citizens. Egalitarianism is not their forte. We have to turn the tables on them. Change will have to come from the bottom and not the top. Along the way, some folks in the middle—some in the media even–get radicalized and ignite movements with what French philosopher Michel Foucault called “counter-conduct” for social change. Our athletes are putting humanities into the civil discourse, and that is a lesson many of our academics, journalists, filmmakers, and civic leaders who can be agents of change should learn. I, for one, as an athlete and a public intellectual support Colin Kaepernick and other athletes who are exhibiting excellent ethics in pursuit of making this society some steps closer to a real democracy.

To be sure, to obtain freedom of conscience is to face dangers coming from powers that be. But that is a danger we must face. A few days prior to opening day of NFL season, the local newspapers in Seattle reported that a majority of Seattle Seahawks are planning on protesting the national anthem ritual as a “whole team,” in support and alliance with Colin Kaepernick. This would have been a powerful act of dissent and well within their rights as Americans. However, the administration quickly jumped in and coopted this plan by inviting police and other militant authorities to “join in” and lock arms with the players to show “unity.” In essence the players opted to demonstrate an act of cowardice by allowing the authorities and ownership to fool them.

To be sure, this story has not concluded in Seattle and some of the players will individually kneel, sit, or raise a fist in homage to John W. Carlos and Tommie Smith who in turn had sent their own homage to the Black Panthers who were fighting for equal rights for African Americans. Many NFL players opted to protest on opening day, and what is also significant is that other athletes are living up to the challenge and protesting. Kaepernick received support from soccer star Megan Rapinoe and the West Virginia Volleyball team, who all took a knee during the playing of the Anthem in protest against police violence and militarism. On Friday September 9th, a majority of the players on a Virginia high school football team dropped to one knee during the anthem in support of Colin Kaepernick as well. But that is a danger we must face. This is only the beginning. The bulk of the fight is yet to happen.

Tony Kashani, a professor of liberal arts at Brandman University, is the author of two editions of Deconstructing the Mystique: An Interdisciplinary Introduction to Cinema, (2005, 2009, Kendall/Hunt Press). He is contributing co-editor of Hollywood's Exploited: Public Pedagogy, Corporate Movies, and Cultural Studies (2010, Palgrave/MacMillan Press). His book Lost in Media: Ethics of Everyday Life (2013, Peter Lang Press) focuses on critical media literacy, and his upcoming book Movies Change Lives (2015, Peter Lang Press) is an interdisciplinary examination of transformative powers of cinema. Read other articles by Tony, or visit Tony's website.