The NFL: Where Dr. King's "Dream" Goes to Die

As the United States celebrates the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, with the swearing in of this country's first African American President, there will no doubt be commentary on the great gap between ceremony and reality. It's the gap between the public spectacle of President Barack Obama's inaugural oath – sworn on one of Martin Luther King's bibles no less - and a country still ravaged by what Dr. King called "the giant triplets of racism, militarism, and economic injustice."

In addition to the inaugural festivities, this weekend was also marked by a spectacle that will rival or exceed the inauguration in passion and interest: the National Football League playoffs. NFL football, by a country mile, is the most popular sport in the United States. It also stands as a living monument of the distance we still must travel to slay Dr. King's "giant triplets." I write this, in full disclosure, as someone who follows the sport religiously, but struggles to not be blind to the politics the NFL pumps through its play.

First and foremost, this weekend's football games presented an orgy of militarism. From the armed forces ads, to the live shots of the 101st Airborne watching overseas, to the warplanes flying overhead, the unspoken slogan was, "If you like the NFL, you'll just love the US military." Amidst the militarism, there was no mention that the greatest commonality between the violent, high adrenaline, excitement on the field and the drudgerous when not dangerous, poverty-wage work in the US military is traumatic brain injury. The league has even engaged in a joint partnership with the US Army to share research because of the stark similarities between being hit with a concussive grenade or an IED and being hit repeatedly by a middle linebacker. It shouldn't surprise anyone that the tributes to Dr. King by the NFL don’t include the time when he said, "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom."

The issue of economic injustice that Dr. King was tackling at the end of his life, pulses throughout the NFL as well. As Dr. King said, "The profit motive, when it is the sole basis of an economic system, encourages a cutthroat competition and selfish ambition that inspires men to be more concerned about making a living than making a life." The fact that athletically gifted children see the NFL, with all its attendant dangers, as being their ticket out of poverty says so much. The need of their friends and family to attach themselves onto these players as if they are substitutes for the anti-poverty programs that no longer exist, also speaks volumes. The fact that for many of the nation's poor, they can't even enter the stadium unless they are there to sell pretzels or beer, even though they paid for the stadium with their tax dollars, says even more. The fact that NFL owners are never held accountable for the injuries on the field, the exploitation of players, or the robbing of the public treasury to pay for their domed palaces, only proves another maxim of Dr. King: “Many white Americans of good will have never connected bigotry with economic exploitation. They have deplored prejudice but tolerated or ignored economic injustice."

Finally, there is the issue most closely tied to Dr. King's legacy: the "dream" of living in a colorblind world where people are judged by the content of their character. To say that the NFL's deeply conservative all-white ownership doesn't exercise racial prejudice is like saying Florida doesn't suffer from sunshine. This past off-season, the league had eight head coaching positions to fill. All eight were filled by white hires. Despite the NFL's much-celebrated Rooney Rule, which requires the interviewing of “minority head coaching candidates”, the league is down to four head coaches of color including Latino Ron Rivera. That means only 9% of coaches are African American in a league where 70% of players are African American: the greatest disparity in a decade.

Yahoo Sports football writer Mike Silver wrote, "I know some of you don't want to be bothered with such inconvenient truths and would rather believe that every NFL owner (and/or individual with hiring power) is a color-blind, ultra-competitive beacon of nobility who is simply trying to find the best man for the job. If so, feel free not to read columns such as these — and to ignore the facts that suggest otherwise. Just know that in my world, the evidence isn't so easily dismissed, and a lot of very qualified and proficient men are baffled at the way the NFL seems to be regressing as we enter the early stages of the 21st century."

I spoke to N. Jeremi Duru, author of Advancing the Ball: Race, Reformation, and the Quest for Equal Coaching Opportunity in the NFL about the all-white hiring wave. He said to me, "It seems the most sought after head coaching candidates during the last couple head coach hiring cycles have been offensive coaches, and for various reasons the NFL's African American coaches who've attained head coaching positions have for the most part been defensive coaches…This year only one of 32 NFL offensive play callers is African American, the Baltimore Ravens' Jim Caldwell.  If the league's clubs remain infatuated with offense, I don't see the numbers of head coaches of color appreciably increasing until head coaches of color are given greater opportunities at the top of clubs' offensive coaching hierarchies. The NFL said late last week that it is looking into altering the Rooney Rule. Hopefully any such alterations will impact the coaching pipeline on the offensive side of the ball."

The Rooney Rule, as Duru details, only came into being because of threats of a massive lawsuit. That tactic may need to be revived.  As Tony Dungy, the first African American head coach to lead a team to a Super Bowl victorysaid,  “I don’t know what the answer is. I just know the system is broken.”

The popularity of the NFL, the popularity of a league that promotes, reflects, and exemplifies Dr. King's "giant triplets", might signify nothing. Maybe it's just an incredibly entertaining product, a magnetic mix of violence, suspense, and fellowship. Maybe, as nature abhors a vacuum, it's a force for community cohesion in our isolated, atomized world. Maybe it's all of these things but maybe it also symbolizes something far more rotten beneath the massive 100 yard American flag they unfurl before every playoff game. To quote Dr. King one last time, "I have come to see that America is in danger of losing her soul. Something must happen to awaken the dozing soul of America before it is too late."

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Is it possible to doze for almost 50 years?

"In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and dejected with a lost opportunity...Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, "Too late."...If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight."

From MLK's "Beyond Vietnam" speech
(Riverside Church, NY City, April 4, 1967)

Dream On

When Altanta native Martin Luther King won the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, the city decided to hold a big party for him. Invitations went out to all the corporate poobahs, captains of industry, education, banking and the like, yet these leaders could generate no enthusiasm to encourage people to attend the party. This was partly due to the fact Atlanta was still racially segregated, but was mainly due to the anti-black feelings among some leaders who openly campaigned for a boycott. Luckily the head of Coca Cola J.P. Austin met with other business leaders and the pro MLK Mayor Allen and threatened for Coke to leave Atlanta if the city didn't turn out for their prize winning Reverend. Austin recognized that standing up for King would generate lots of good publicity world-wide, and be beneficial for the international brand of Coca Cola. So in the end, the party was a huge success, and its success was driven by, what else, MONEY.

Same in the NFL. The media, and advertisers, who pay a large portion of the bills, generally want white coaches to interview, white QB's to huddle with, white folks to endorse. Driven, as in the case of the story above, by MONEY.

By the way, Martin Luther King's greatest speech was "I Have A Dream".

Today, Barrack Obama, the only president in history to have assassinated two of his own people without due process, and who has killed many innocent children abroad via carpet bombs, drones and the like gave one of his best speeches today.

It was called "I Have A Drone".

Is there a greater evil than the murder of children?

More of the same!

You cannot blame the NFL. It is a $9 billion dollar industry... Parents need to be aware only less than 1% makes it inot thise league. If players play when they are knownly injured, how can you blame the onwners....

What planet is Rock30?

Are you saying that a $9 billion dollar industry is too big to be accountable?

That it's not human nature to try to win the lottery when other opportunities are nonexistent?

Or when the company doctor and/or manager clears one to keep working, that one still can take the day off without fearing for one's job?

more of the same!

Either Rock30 is a billionaire or he is a natural-born serf.

The Key MLK Quote Left Out Of The Posthumous Cannon

In his "Beyond Vietnam" speech at the Riverside Church in NYC delivered exactly one year to the day before his death he said that he could no longer bring himself to denounce the violence of the oppressed until he had first full spoken to the violence of the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: The U.S. Government.

He was actually being kind to the U.S. government. It's the greatest purveyor of violence in world history. Not difficult to imagine how somebody trying to make this point on Fox News would be treated. Much in the same way MLK was treated by the liberals at the time who denounced him for the speech.

His anti-war activism, along with his anti-poverty activism, made him reviled within the liberal establishment. They liked him when he was demonstrating in the face of the violence of redneck Southern sheriffs, but when he started attacking power where it really resides, like the Pentagon and Wall Street, then he wasn't so well liked by so many white liberals anymore.

I'm all for doing away with this holiday. It wipes out his late in life anti-poverty and anti-war activism in 1984 like fashion. All it does is highlight his anti-segregation activism in the South, and helps to serve the false notion that white racism was/is a "Southern issue".

Smells like pigskin--

"...And so we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. And so we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would hardly live on the same block in Chicago...."
'Beyond Vietnam'
Apparently, only the love of violence can unite Americans. Thus, we are now to have women serve in combat. "Arc of Justice," indeed.

Why is it most of us can't afford game tickets?:

"...one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. And you see, my friends, when you deal with this you begin to ask the question, "Who owns the oil?" You begin to ask the question, "Who owns the iron ore?" You begin to ask the question, "Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that's two-thirds water?" These are words that must be said....."
'Where Do We Go From Here?',
1967, Atlanta, Ga.

omg a black man has a white boss, there must be racism in here somewhere

heres the thing i agree with a lot of your points zirin as usual. the overt militarism for the nfl needs to go no question, no doubt there is still racisim even in professional sports. but heres what erks me. you say these unfair hiring and business practices arre meant to keep the players subservient to the owners, and this is mainly due to race. However many of these same tactics meant to keep the players subservient also happen in the NHL(Where the players are predominately white, as are the owners). these same problems occur in a league where there are virtually no minorities. are the players treated any better? not by a long shot. so you dont get to scream racism when the majority of your evidence also occurs in leagues where there is not much racial differenc between players and owners. ask vladi kostantinov about his pension plan. the only difference i can see is that football is trying to wipe injuries and concussions under the rug, and the nhl is at least putting steps in place to negate them from happening or preventing those that occur from getting worse. and to end on why we should stop guessing what mlk would think of modern society here is a quote from one of my idols larry wilmore senior black correspondent on the daily show" I'm just fucking with you, Jon. I HAVE NO IDEA! How am I supposed to know, Dr. King is dead, OK? So you don't get to use him as your imaginary black "yes man". well said larry well said

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Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
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