It was Sunday. We (my fiancee and I) were at my dad’s house, watching the Heat/Bulls game. It was halftime, so I started channel surfing. We landed on the NFL combine.
Her: “What’s this?”
Me: “The closest thing you’ll ever see to a televised slave auction.”
Her: “Ha. Seriously, what is this?”
Me: “It’s the NFL combine. Where all the college players hoping to get drafted work out and get measured in front of NFL teams.”
***30 seconds later***
Her: “What do they measure?”
Me: “Basically everything from speed to hand size.”
Her: “Hand size?”
***30 seconds later***
Her: “Yeah, this is super slave auction-ey. Feels like I’m watching 12 Years a Slave.”
Me: “We haven’t even seen that yet.”
Her: “After seeing this, I don’t think we need to.”
For the next five minutes or so, we made increasingly silly joke after increasingly silly joke comparing the combine to a slave auction. At the height of the silliness, we both adopted “overseer” accents (which probably actually sounded Jamaican) when mimicking the commentators’ vocal inflections whenever they’d mention a player’s “loose hips” or “wide wingspan” or “thigh width” or “watermelon picking nose.” But beneath the silliness was the realization that we actually weren’t that off.
The nature of football dictates and demands that a premium is placed on prospects proving themselves by performing tasks — vertical leaps, bench presses, etc — more based on physicality and athleticism than actual skill. This is unique to that sport. A great 40 yard dash time and high vertical leap alone won’t get you drafted in the NBA, the NHL, or Major League Baseball. In the NFL, though, it could make you a millionaire.
And, while the slave auction comparison was obviously hyperbolic (to my knowledge, no slaves were signing multi-million dollar contracts), when watching this group of very young and half-naked (mostly) Black men perform these tasks while being picked, prodded, and assessed by a group of much older, fully dressed, and (mostly) White men — men with the power to decide exactly where these young men are going to be employed — it’s a natural connection.
But, we kept watching.
Yesterday, I published a piece by Maya Francis that asked us to rethink Bill Cosby’s legacy in light of the multiple sexual assault allegations against him. A couple months earlier, I wrote something similar in content but much more scathing in tone about R. Kelly. In it, I made no qualms about calling current fans of the R-uh idiots.
These pieces are mere drops in the accountability/outrage ocean we now all seem to swim in. From Chris Brown to republicans to Woody Allen to Gabrielle Union to Chick-Fil-a to Robin Thicke to Papa Johns to Miley Cyrus to Kanye West to the state of Florida, recent popular American culture is filled with examples of a large number of people deciding that a popular entity’s behavior is too troublesome to continue to purchase and/or patronize their product(s).
But when it comes to the NFL, an organization whose negative headlines over just the last six months read like stories from an off-brand Law & Order franchise (“Next on Law & Order: Tampa Greyhound Station: Handsome NFL heartthrob by day. Multi-state serial rapist by night.“), this outrage seems to wane. And by “wane” I mean “not fucking exist.”
Well, maybe we say it does. Maybe we say that all the issues plaguing the league — domestic violence, murder, rape, racism, sexism, homophobia, bullying, steroids, teams named after racial slurs, bounties, permanent brain injuries, lawsuits from people with permanent brain injuries who contend the league lied to them, evidence the league is attempting to silence the lawsuits — really bother us. Maybe we say we’re turned off by the post-racial racist audaciousness of the league considering a rule prohibiting Black players from saying “nigga“, and maybe we realize it’s a smokescreen to distract us from stuff like star running backs knocking out their fiancees in casinos and dragging them out of elevators. Maybe we’re bothered by news that a multi-billion dollar industry that makes a big production every year to show how committed they are to breast cancer research only gives 8% of the proceeds from the campaign to actual research. Maybe we’re bothered by how it ties itself to patriotism and militaristicness, and maybe we see the irony in it branding itself as “America’s Game.” Maybe we care that it’s the most violent and physically demanding of the four major American team sports, but the only one not to offer its workforce fully guaranteed contracts. Maybe we care that the cost of a family actually attending a game is more than their mortgage.
But, we keep watching. In record numbers. So it doesn’t really matter what we say, does it? This isn’t just us putting our heads in the sand. It’s us putting our heads in the sand, and demanding deeper, hotter, and heavier sand.
After turning the Heat/Bulls game back on, I sporadically turned back to the combine during commercial breaks. She wasn’t pleased.
Her: “This slave shit…again. Why?“
Me: “The Steelers need a big receiver. I need to watch.”
—Damon Young (aka “The Champ”)