Instead of thinking, we played. Schools became not places to enlarge our conceptual universe, but holding pens, places we had to sit until practice started. We were there to play. And not for fun. But to win. We listened to the constant berating of those whose dreams had been dashed. They placed their vanquished hopes of glory on our backs, projecting their visions of success on our legs, their absurd desires for vindication on our arms, our bodies—vehicles for achievements they only wished they had made themselves. And the ones that did achieve success, reveled in the fact that they were creating in us new versions of them. They were our role models. We were the clay they wanted to mold. Many of them were blameless; it was all they knew. I would be lying if I said that I did not love many of them to this day. This is not some sad instance of Stockholm syndrome; I know that they truly believed that this was best for us. It was their world, so it became ours. They came from places that lauded them as heroes; what we wanted to be. But heroes—only because they won games.
Our worlds narrowed, everything that was important happened between sidelines. Our destinies became endzones, but they were also zones that proscribed the kinds of endings that some told us was our destiny. We were told: Train so that you may run fast, because you may need to “burn” another player, or even worse you may need to prevent yourself from getting “burned.” Lift weights so that you may be strong, because strength will prevent you from being moved off a line. We need you to hold that line so others might advance, or so that you can prevent others from advancing. You need your endurance, because when the other man gets tired, you have an advantage. Read this playbook, other books are cool, but if you learn this one you can win games. The more games you win, the more likely someone from a plantation college will let you work there. Yeah, those other books are critical, but only because you need to remain eligible. By the way, you do realize that you are only doing this because this is the only way you can go to college? Learn these chants, sing these songs, do these rituals, because it builds trust. In war, you do not want to be in the trenches with people that you do not trust. Believe it. We are at war. If you are not prepared, you lose. This game is only loyal to those who tool themselves for battle.
Again, those who told us these things are blameless. They were only replicating a social order that was bequeathed to them. It was a way of imagining our social conditions, our possibilities, using terms that conflated football with the meaning of life. And perhaps they were right; this game did mimic life, but not in the ways that reflected the best of our humanity. After all, we were being told to eschew the things that made humans complex social beings, those things which made life worth living, in service to some idea that our best chances for living life were to risk our bodies. We were not so subtly being made into violent beings. It was all a game. But one that actually mimicked European military formations and warfare. It was all a game. But we were told to line up in front of peoples who in the context of “the game” were our enemies. We were told to “knock” our erstwhile brothers’ “dicks into the dirt.” We were bulls in a ring. Animals forced to try to decapitate each other. We were called “pussies” if we did not comply. We were told that “your heart must pump Kool-Aid” if we hesitated. We complied. Often for the entertainment of our blameless coaches. They were only doing what their fathers told them. So we complied. If we did it well, we might get a scholarship. We needed to be tough, they were only testing our toughness. We were becoming men, they said.
We were becoming men, they reminded us. Repeatedly. So we would no forget. They told us that this was why they had to put us through those punitive sprints, making us walk like crabs, denying us water breaks. We had to learn. Pussies do not win games. You will thank us one day, they said. So we listened. We wanted to win. And we wanted more than that to escape our plight, to make it.
They did not tell us what we would be escaping to.
I saw many of my brothers, close and distant, sent away to places, near and far. We were all happy for them. I secretly envied them. I did not want to stop playing. Playing meant so much to me. They sent them to plantations. Some publicly funded. There the beauty of the gridiron was its own reward. They said this was the promised land. It was Canaan.
They only wanted my brothers for their labor. Their legs, arms—their bodies. Their minds were superfluous. They only needed to master duties that were useful between sidelines. The only position that required thinking was closed to many of them. “Just run, just jump, just use your hands. Do you have good hands?” But most of all, hit: Hit them so hard that the ball comes loose. Hit them so hard that they fear coming across the middle. Hit them so hard that they think twice about running towards you. Push forward, comes the war cry. Do not give an inch. That is what we want you to do. So we can win. And you can achieve glory. And your masters can make profits.
They accepted these terms. I do not blame them. I would have done the same thing if not for some intervention that we can only say was Divine. They told my brothers to “be happy after all, we are giving you a free education. And you are becoming men.”
Canaan may have made them men. But what kind? And what were the costs? I think about my brothers often. I hope the damaging lessons learned between those sidelines, the physical toll that was the price of their “education” did not prevent them from thinking about life in other terms. I am thankful that I found a new way of seeing life. Even as I still reel from the bad, physical and mental. A lot of it still hurts.
It was clear, though, that many of my brothers were not in those spaces for an education. If they received one, it was a mistake. They got excused from classes. Advisors reminded them to study. They needed to be eligible. But beyond that, for too many of them, their minds were terrible things, already wasted. Wasted by toxic masculinities, broken dreams, missed opportunities. And head injuries. The concussions came. They told them to play anyway. Many of the concussions they got were not even diagnosed. Their legs gave out. They repaired them and convinced them to keep playing. Pain is temporary, glory lasts forever.
They took them to meet donors and boosters. They lavished praised upon them. Some even considered them worth their riches. So they gave them things, even though the Governor (NCAA) declared this would “ruin the slave.” They wanted them to be happy. Even though this sport was surreptitiously undoing their lives. I saw some of them descend swiftly. “Football as life skills” is a name for a poor sort of social work intervention. So it failed them. They left the plantations and went to unemployment lines, some to jails. Too many of them. Many others survive today. But too many of them do not. Too many. They placed faith in guardians who only needed their bodies. So when they became of no use to them, some of them were discarded. It is a tragedy, even as it is eminently American.
Against great odds, some of them made it to something called a “combine.” They were poked, prodded, measured as the beasts of burden they would become. They became economic units of labor on the biggest stage. Everybody watches them now. We require their bodily sacrifice. It makes us feel good on Sundays. We ignore the deleterious impact of the violence on the field. In fact, it is that violence we love. Jacked up! It stokes some sick impulse for seeing others harmed as sport. Perhaps it stems from the colonial mindset that has ordered American existence. I wish they had not taught that to us. We have been convinced that it is ours too. They made us fight each other for their entertainment before. Now we embrace it.
We ignore the violence off the field. Not all are violent in these spheres. But too many of our brothers are. It is likely a product of everything that they had been told since they were kids. In football, violence is a means of conflict resolution. I am trying to move past you, you are trying to stop my momentum. So I will inflict pain upon you, and you upon me. May the more violent man win. And so it is no accident that some of that philosophy is visited upon women. Many of them innocent victims of accepted colonial traditions, some of them convinced they too must embrace it. They valorized heroes taught to inflict violence. We ignore it. Because Sundays in our expensive jerseys are sacred. It is the national religion.
Sundays become our collective exercises in distraction. Do not schedule anything meaningful on Sundays in the fall, because you may figure out just how meaningful it is. The results might dishearten you. We measure our moods on the outcomes of our teams. We waste our best powers of reason playing the game of “What I would’ve done…” if we had coached the game. And we pause in moments of collective sobriety when one of our warriors is carted off the field. We lament their absence, because now it means the backup has to play. We do not think about the life in that body. The only thing that they know how to do is play this sport and talk about this sport. We consider the exceptions to this rule, well, exceptions. Even if they never play it again, we are only temporarily saddened. But we have little sympathy for their life. We forget their names when they cannot play anymore. Unless they were good enough to enter the Hall of Fame. Then we cry when they are inducted. Unless they are not there because they committed suicide because the game destroyed their brain. We cry. And then watch others’ brains get destroyed. Some people die in wars.
The media kindle our desires. They are complicit. They pay for the rights to our distraction. They hire broken bodies to cover the breaking of other bodies. And we listen to them speak about game as it is as meaningful as life itself. And it is. Except it is a conception of life that we should no longer accept. Our attentions are reduced to constant reactions to what happens between sidelines. Even when it is not happening. Even when it is months away from happening. It is an absurd moment in human history. Yet one that was entirely predictable if we consider the social contexts that generated football. It is no accident that such a sport might emanate from the registers of British colonialism. In fact, its most violent variants find their homes in the most virulent settler colonial regimes in the world. This is no mistake. When we realize what the British empire has accomplished and what American culture has given to the world, something like football is entirely convergent.
Yet we will continue to watch. It is too damned compelling.
But no longer for me. I am done. I now wonder if there are other human commitments that will reward our loyalty.
Josh Myers is an Assistant Professor of Africana Studies in the Department of Afro-American Studies at Howard University. His work has been published in The Journal of African American Studies, The Journal of Pan African Studies, The African Journal of Rhetoric, The Howard Human and Civil Rights Law Review, Liberator Magazine, and Pambazuka, among other literary spaces. He blogs at http://speaktomekhet.wordpress.com and is on Twitter @ddehewty.