WRITTEN & PUBLISHED FOR OCCUPYWALLST.ORG
The truth is: I haven’t watched an American football game for more than a few minutes in 10 years. I grew up surrounded by football, played it as a kid and abandoned it as a teenager. I tried football out again during art school with a touch of ironic distance. Everything changed after 9/11. It was difficult enough to blind myself from nationalism already present throughout US sports before 9/11. Afterwards, the level of nationalism in NFL games became unbearable just as I became more politicized and aware of our broader socio-political reality. Not only did I turn off football, I turned off my television permanently. I left it in Tennessee and moved to New York.
Another Super Bowl is on its way and maybe I should tune in. I planned on avoiding it but I’ve moved back to Tennessee where Earth will stand still at kick off time. With or without me, the Super Bowl is going to happen and magnetize my neighbors. If I don’t watch the game I may be the only person turned away from a television. Money is flowing. Pop stars are rehearsing. Great athletes are nervous. New commercials are queued. Military jets are gassed for crowd flyovers. The Goodyear blimp is inflating somewhere in new Jersey. Cutting edge surveillance is installed. Homeland Security loaded their weapons.
If you were planning on avoiding the game like me, but you’re open to a new experience and considering watching it, choose tuning in over tuning out. Dust off your television or, if you are already in front of one, get comfortable. Attend a Super Bowl XLVIII party. Throw one. Make vegan snacks. Make anti-capitalist pamphlets with colorful pictures of the Seattle Seahawks.. or, I mean, the 99%. Find a good sports bar and subvert it. Occupy football language. Insert slogans. Be quick with your facts. Start conversations. Who is your team? “The 99%”. You want to see Denver… I mean the 1%, go down in a ball of flames and left behind crying on the football field when the night ends. Invite your dad over to watch the game. Invite co-workers. Neighbors. Tell them about the battle between the 99% and the 1%
We’re going to turn on the Super Bowl and look inside American society. To take the idea further, can the Super Bowl become a conversation about economic violence? Should we occupy tailgating parties outside the stadium? Should we throw subversive Super Bowl parties in our living rooms? It is an event waiting to be hijacked. Could we turn the conversation, turn the Super Bowl, into a war over economic inequality? Drenched in war terminology, football as a public expression of class war is not far from the truth.
Despite its nationalist imagery, NFL protocol very consciously identifies as a-political. The American political machine, however, has a history of using football allusions. William Safire is the political writer who penned this minimal football inspired prediction for war in Iraq: “Iraqis, cheering their liberators, will lead the Arab world toward democracy.”
The sentence drips with allusions to the thrill of winning the big game. Democracy becomes a platinum trophy and bonus financial deals. It tells us about allusions within political language lifted from football fields and projected onto battlefields. Safire intended to minimize extreme violence and lull a public towards a war that lacked reason. Played out as myths on the public’s consciousness, this blend between war and sports turns citizens into fans. Safire’s sentence seats Iraqis around a stadium. War is nothing more than cheers. It turns the U.S. military into a triumphant professional sports team. Safire, a neoconservative, tended to employ sports in his rhetoric. Although his goals were destructive and his impact was dark, one concept Safire defined is very useful if we are thinking of hijacking the Super Bowl: “the political football”.
In Safire’s Political Dictionary, he defines it as: “To thrust a social, national security, or otherwise ostensibly non-political matter into partisan politics”.
How do we turn the Super Bowl into a “political football”? First, what do we know about football? What is American football? What is the game we want to subvert? The professional version of the game contains the country’s socio-dynamic political dynamics. This makes a Super Bowl the perfect stage for a national tension.
If we take away its contemporary packaging we’re left with a common space built to gather a cross section of US society around a central drama. This is why football is used by politicians. American football predates by far global corporatism, neoliberalism, the 24 hour news cycle and hyper-consumerism. It is a social ritual that predates today’s possession by market forces. Like most common spaces across America, corporations now own, dictate and mediate this public forum. This public forum is a profit machine.
The Super Bowl is tied to empire. The state and this high-profile public forum compliment each other and fit comfortably within the hyper-consumerist drive of this big game. Cutting-edge commercial spectacles become as mythic as any Super Bowl. Commercials deliver the game as much as the game delivers commercials. The game itself may be beautiful as movement and strategy, a slow 3 hour drama, and I understand why fans are driven to games year after year. Still, the game is steeped in empire. Written in the language of war, it regenerates empire’s greed, its forms of violence, its social and economic inequality. Players, like war veterans, live with devastating injuries after they serve their time in the field.
In a stand-up comedy routine, George Carlin left a timeless summary: “Football is a twentieth-century technological struggle (….) Football is played on a gridiron, in a stadium, sometimes called Soldier Field or War Memorial Stadium (….) Football begins in the fall, when everything’s dying (….) In football you wear a helmet (….) Football is concerned with downs – what down is it? (….) In football you receive a penalty (….) Football has hitting, clipping, spearing, piling on, personal fouls, late hitting and unnecessary roughness (….) Football is played in any kind of weather: rain, snow, sleet, hail, fog (….) Football has the two minute warning …Football is rigidly timed, and it will end even if we’ve got to go to sudden death (….) In football the object is for the quarterback, also known as the field general, to be on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defense by hitting his recievers with deadly accuracy in spite of the blitz, even if he has to use shotgun. With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing this aerial assault with a sustained ground attack that punches holes in the forward wall of the enemy’s defensive line.”
Carlin’s summary leaves out other ways American culture and football intersect through violence.
Professional football mimics economic violence found in broader American culture. It is a microcosm of war waged on the 99% by the financial elite. What is football worth to your community? One of the most striking examples of economic violence is this: the NFL has a tax exempt status. In a country where the largest commercial entities notoriously escape obligations to the common good, the National Football League is no exception. Here is a byline from a recent article about the NFL published by The Atlantic, October 2013: “Taxpayers fund the stadiums, antitrust law doesn’t apply to broadcast deals, the league enjoys nonprofit status, and Commissioner Roger Goodell makes $30 million a year. It’s time to stop the public giveaways to America’s richest sports league—and to the feudal lords who own its teams.”
Sound familiar? As Commissioner Goodell ran out of ways to spend his yearly salary of 30 million dollars, an Oakland Raider cheerleader was filing a lawsuit claiming the team violated labor laws: “Lacy T., a 27-year-old Oakland Raiders cheerleader who has filed a class-action lawsuit against the team alleging multiple violations of California’s labor laws (…) Lacy alleges that the Raiders seriously underpay the 40 or so professional dancers who make up the squad each year. Each earns a grand total of about $1,250 for a 10-game season, plus three practices per week, plus at least 10 public appearances, plus participation in the Raiderettes calendar photo shoot. Lacy figures she has been paid less than $5 an hour, a violation of the state’s minimum wage law.”
The Los Angeles Times journalist covering Lacy T.’s lawsuit revealed a patronizing secret Oakland Raiderettes handbook which illustrates another way the NFL contains broader American culture: sexism. Robin Abcarian writes, “I have in my possession a copy of the super-secret official Oakland Raiderettes handbook, which outlines employment policies that are the subject of a class-action lawsuit, and also promises to teach “elite etiquette” to “football’s fabulous females.” (…..) The handbook is patronizing and insulting, with outmoded ideas about men and women in the workplace, even if the workplace is not your average office. (…..) Honestly, I’m starting to think cheerleaders are why God made labor unions.”
Not only does the NFL contain an imprint of sexist attitudes from broader society, it also has a tendency to create sexual violence. Professional football mimics our society’s sexual violence towards women. Jennifer Siebel Newsom writes: “Beyond recent findings that prolonged exposure to football’s hits and tackles has inevitable harmful physical and mental effects on these athletes, a sport dependent on the idea of dominating other human beings’ bodies is bound to have a psychological effect on its fans, not to mention the larger culture. In hypermasculine culture, physical aggression is directly linked to sexual aggression and the two combined confer “manliness” on an individual male. So it makes sense to see women as objects for the male gaze in the Super Bowl ads. And, by virtue of it being America’s most popular game — in combination with the media’s overall lack of respect for women — it makes sense that this influences how we see and treat women in our culture at-large. But the logic of the impact doesn’t make it any less damning.”
American football contains American society. Everything is there, inside an oval forum, and broadcasted out to millions of flat screens glowing from day into night. Most fans turn it on to tune in. They don’t attend the Super Bowl. Screens take the place of public forum. They are a disconnected connection. Even if there were enough seats in one central stadium, one giant futuristic stadium, Super Bowl tickets would be too expensive. Most fans can buy a shirt or a hat, yell at a screen and bet on the big game. If they’re truly devoted they may spend a large chunk a yearly income on tickets. Prices are falling for this year’s game because of harsh weather but still seats are too much money for the average person.
A comment from an NFL fan under a Forbes article about falling ticket prices: “Love it! I hope the tickets drop below $1,000. Make it affordable for the working fan. Only ones who get hurt are the brokers, who are primarily responsible for the tickets being priced out of most people’s budget.”
Most fans are stuck with a screen on Super Bowl Sunday. Can we change the dialogue of a game primarily experienced through a screen? How do we seize the screen? How could we turn the Super Bowl into a contest between the 1%— – who have only increased their monopoly over a corrupt 30 year reign—and- versus the 99%— – a fractious mass of everyone else increasingly unified around calls for economic justice.
We have a need to address economic violence and a violent opera. Can we play political football?
We do not need to claim, redefine or save football. We only needs to hijack the event’s meaning. The game itself may be beautiful as movement and strategy, a slow but dramatic event, and I understand why fans are driven to games year after year, but I think the game is empire for saving. At its core, the game, written in the language of war, reproduces empire’s behavior, its forms of violence, its social and economic inequality.
Could we add a game on top of this game? Maybe our only realistic strategy on a lonely Super Bowl sunday is turning this game into a socio-political game. Could we add a game on top of the game? We can’t afford commercial airtime toand address the world directly, so we must, so we are already destined to fail on a macro level. Still, the big game is one more realm we need to occupy. It might be an impossible task and many would say we desperately need to ignore spectacles. Maybe, people say, these distractions of mass entertainment prevent us from starting a real pick-up game on the streets between the 1% and the 99%. Until the day arrives, we can practice, right? We can run interference and. We can attack dominant culture at the level of imagination in small ways.
Here is what I think we should do:
We should hijack the language of Super Bowl XLVIII the game. One team will represent the 1%. One team will represent the 99%. We will invade every living room, every tailgate party and every sports bar. Refuse to use the words “Seattle” and “Denver”. Drive Super Bowl fans mad while insisting on a real conversation about economic violence.
Does Denver or Seattle deserve the label “home of the 99%”?
All NFL teams declare themselves representatives their cities. We need to know which city – Denver or Seattle – most represents the people over profits. Super Bowl’s are advertised as contests between cities. We also need to consider which team most represents the people over profits.
I’ve chosen the Seattle Seahawks as the true Occupy team. As a city and as a team, Seattle comes closer to what we want in an advocate for economic justice. You could choose Denver. Either way, we can create conversations around this single event but let me tell you why I chose Seattle.
Like many cities U.S. Seattle and Denver have increasingly reconstructed their social make-up. Both cities have developed into gentrified zones. In 2012, blogger Michael J. Petrilli created a list of the fastest gentrifying neighborhoods in the US. He relied on counting the “white share” of zipcodes. It is a crude test but gentrification is class violence often tied race and displacement of marginalized communities. Denver is number 11 on Petrilli’s list. Seattle is not on the list. Denver’s “white share” of population increased 29.2% to 56.2%, 2000 to 2010.
Remember the Battle of Seattle? Seattle has the spirit of resistance in its past and present even though it faces gentrification by forces such as Microsoft and the city’s previous Mayor McGinn who worked hard for real estate developers. Seattle’s current Mayor Murray recently raised wages of all city workers to $15 per hour. He has worked to reform the culture of the city’s police. Murray is the city’s first openly gay mayor. As a senator, Murray led the state’s winning legislation for same-sex marriage.
Just this Wednesday, Seattle’s city council member delivered the best response to President Obama’s State of the Union Address. Kshama Sawant declared, “Tonight, President Obama talked about the deepening inequality. But that is a testament of his own presidency. A presidency that has betrayed the hopes of tens of millions of people who voted for him out of a genuine desire for fundamental change away from corporate politics and war mongering. Poverty is at record-high numbers – 95% of the gains in productivity during the so-called recovery have gone to the top 1%. The president’s focus on income inequality was an admission of the failure of his policies. An admission forced by rallies, demonstrations, and strikes by fast food and low wage workers demanding a minimum wage of $15. It has been forced by the outrage over the widening gulf between the super-rich and those of us working to create this wealth in society.”
Meanwhile, Denver tends to sell development for business and real estate – gentrification – using the language of misleading rhetoric laiden with pretense towards progressive community action.
“Stimulus funds aimed at jumpstarting the economy paid for about 4,000 trees in Denver, with many ending up at million dollar homes in Denver’s priciest neighborhoods where residents acknowledge they could have paid for their own trees…”, CBS News Denver reported in September 2013, “… that the tree program had no income guidelines, so trees ended up being planted at homes in Denver’s Country Club neighborhood, Hilltop, Belcaro and Washington Park neighborhoods — all considered upscale areas of the city.”
Denver’s mayor seems to be a leader in local gentrification. He recently co-opted plans by the Parks and Recreation department to renovate a park and began a kind of architectural invasion that inspired protests by site’s neighbors. The project was called City Loop: “Food trucks for families on the go. A soft track for jogging geezers. Hammocks for summer slackers and an ice rink for Winter Olympics hopefuls. Comfort stations for the uncomfortable. All it lacks is what the initial project description insisted it would have: community context and advocacy.”
Denver’s mayor is antagonistic to the legalized pot industry. He also led a police crackdown on lower Denver bars and customers. LoDo is an area of bars where crowds gather on weekends. Real estate security. It’s safe to assume this tactic led towards further gentrification and sterilization.
Seattle’s team is the game’s underdog. Denver’s team is a football dynasty. Seattle is a defensive team. To play defense well, players have to work for each other. A defensive position is a defiant position. Denver has long been an offensive team featuring star quarterbacks and crowd pleasing acrobatics. Teams with spectacular offenses are favored by corporate America. Smiling quarterbacks sell products well. Offensive players tend to earn more than defensive players. Denver’s quarterback, Peyton Manning, makes $15,000,000 each year from his team salary. His Seattle counterpart, Russell Wilson, “makes just 3.5 percent of Manning’s base salary”.
Seattle’s most well-known player across mainstream media is defensive player who was recently dragged into a media led racist backlash against his outspoken style. Sherman was called a “thug”.
Amy Davidson recounted the day for New Yorker readers,
With thirty-one seconds left to play, Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback, had the ball on Seattle’s eighteen-yard line—the 49ers were losing by six points and needed a touchdown. He spotted Michael Crabtree, a wide receiver, and sent him the pass. Sherman twisted up in the air until he seemed almost in synch with the ball’s spiralling, then tipped the ball into the hands of another defender for an interception, and won the game. Sherman was swarmed by his teammates but broke away to chase after Crabtree. He stretched out a hand and said, “Hell of a game, hell of a game,” to which Crabtree responded by shoving him in the face mask. Moments later, Sherman was surrounded by reporters and cameramen; by then, he had acquired an N.F.C. champions’ cap, which left his eyes in shadow, and his long dreadlocks hung loose. When Erin Andrews, of Fox Sports, asked him about the final play, he more or less exploded. “I’m the best corner in the game!” he proclaimed. “When you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree, that’s the result you gonna get! Don’t you ever talk about me!”
“Who was talking about you?” Andrews asked.
“Crabtree! Don’t you open your mouth about the best, or I’m gonna shut it for you real quick! L.O.B.!”
L.O.B.: that’s Legion of Boom, the nickname of the Seattle defense.”
The video of the “epic rant,” as it was called, went viral. Andrews told GQ that the response was so overwhelming that her Twitter account froze. She added, “Then we saw it was taking on a racial turn.” Some people expressed alarm that an angry black man was shouting at a blond-haired woman. (Andrews immediately shut down that line of complaint.) Many people expressed a hope that Manning would put Sherman in his place. The names that he was called were numerous, offensive, and explicitly racial, but one that stood out—it was used more than six hundred times on television, according to Deadspin—was “thug.”
(……..) After the Seahawks drafted him, in the fifth round, he became known as an inventive verbal provocateur on the field, as well as one of the best players in his position. But he is, by all accounts, a considerate and community-minded teammate. Sherman said that he first grasped the power of words at the age of twelve, when he saw a documentary about Muhammad Ali. If Sherman lost control of that power in his interview with Andrews, he regained it quickly. The next day, Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, he posted an essay on Sports Illustrated’s Web site with the title “To Those Who Would Call Me a Thug or Worse.”
In an article for Salon, Joan Walsh writes, “Sherman was globally denounced as a “thug” and worse, as ugly racial stereotypes and flat-out projection defined the talented scholar from tough Compton by way of Stanford University as a criminal.”
Walsh compares Sherman’s words to threats made by New York Rep. Michael Grimm against a reporter who asked the representative about an investigation into his campaign financing. “Stand Grimm and Sherman side by side”, Walsh writes, “..there is only one “thug,” and it’s the GOP congressman.”
Sherman is the kind of a player we need playing for the 99%.
I think we have our team: the team of the 99%. Our team is: Seattle.
Attend a Super Bowl XLVIII party. Throw one. Make vegan snacks. Make anti-capitalist pamphlets with colorful pictures of the Seattle Seahawks.. or, I mean, the 99%. Find a good sports bar and subvert it. Occupy football language. Insert slogans. Be quick with your facts. Start conversations. Who is your team? “The 99%”. You want to see Denver.. I mean the 1%, go down in a ball of flames and left behind crying on the football field when the night ends. Invite your dad over to watch the game. Invite co-workers. Neighbors. Tell them about the battle between the 99% and the 1%
Super Bowls, of course, are commercial spectacles aired more the delivery of television ads than love of the game. Football purists often say they don’t like the Super Bowl. It is too commercial. It is also a perfect target.
A Super Bowl’s ending – which fades as it replays across mainstream media until it is forgotten – always marks a new Spring to be remembered.
A pep talk for the 99%…
“We are in hell right now … Believe me. And we can stay here and get the shit kicked out of us or we can fight our way back into the light … One inch, at a time … The inches we need are everywhere around us … either we heal now, as a team, or we will die as individuals. That’s football … That’s all it is.”
Al Pacino - final speech from Any Given Sunday