I remember the moment I turned from football. It was a 49ers game in the late 1990s, and Merton Hanks was celebrating a touchdown by performing his so-called chicken dance in the end zone. I was a 49ers fan, but staring at the television I was struck that the men for whom I was rooting were those I’d avoided during college – taunting, aggressive, flush with physicality.
Later, I would learn about CTE, the brain damage caused by repeated hits to the head. This is pro football’s steroid scandal, or worse: proof that the sport is little more than a contemporary gladiator game, and we are no better than the ancient Romans in the brutality we visit upon one another and upon ourselves.
What these athletes share is a sense of sports as social force, not just spectacle or entertainment but also part of the broader fabric of community. That it works suggests something about how change occurs in the United States.
And yet, how can I be anything but moved by what happened on pro football fields across the country this past weekend, as players either took a knee or linked arms for the national anthem, standing in solidarity against comments made by President Donald Trump?
The president, of course, was not thinking about such nuances when he said, last Friday at a rally in Alabama, that athletes who took the knee should be fired. For him, it was a convenient way to score points with his base by making a divisive statement about race.
Then the players responded, reminding us again that sports are not (or don’t have to be) only about preening and money, that they can play a social role.
The player who first took a knee, former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, did so to protest “a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” This was just over a year ago. That Kaepernick is no longer in the NFL illustrates the tenacity of the cultural divide he was protesting, a divide the president appears intent to exacerbate.
Kaepernick, however, is a hero: How else to categorize someone who puts his well-being, his livelihood, on the line? In that sense, he stands in a lineage that goes back to Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali and Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who raised their fists at the 1968 Olympics in a Black Power salute.
What these athletes share is a sense of sports as social force, not just spectacle or entertainment but also part of the broader fabric of community. That it works – that Robinson, say, struck a blow for civil rights across the board when he took the field in 1947 as the first African-American player in major league baseball – suggests something about how change occurs in the United States.
We are a mass culture, not a melting pot but a mosaic, a hodgepodge of identities. For real change to take place, we need to see it, to identify; it must become personal. This is why shows such as “Soap” or “Modern Family” have played such a role in the acceptance, for example, of gay life into the mainstream – because viewers could watch, and care about, gay characters on television screens.
Like pro athletes, they came into people’s homes, became part of their lives, and in so doing, encouraged us to recognize their humanity.
The same is true of Kaepernick, and every player who protested on Sunday. Watching, it is impossible not to understand that they are us.
I don’t expect athletes to be role models. I agree with former NBA star Charles Barkley, who once declared, “I’m not paid to be a role model. I’m paid to wreak havoc on the basketball court.”
Still, when they stand up as they did over the weekend, it makes me think again about the game and why it matters – on and off the field.
David L. Ulin is the author of “Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles,” shortlisted for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. He is the former book critic and book editor of the Los Angeles Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.