The NFL’s National Anthem Failure

The league has a right to make its own rules, but this was a missed opportunity to model a healthy public square.

The NFL’s new policy that players must stand for the national anthem or else stay in the locker room during the song is the wrong decision. Team owners, a group of 32 billionaires, took varying approaches last season to handling the public relations kerfuffle over African-American players who knelt during the anthem. The “compromise,” announced by league head Roger Goodell, is more of a mandate, a response to an unexpectedly significant public backlash that seemed to drag down the NFL’s all-important TV ratings. Of course the league has the legal right to make its own rules, but the new policy represents a failure of moral leadership.

It’s important to remember that while former quarterback Colin Kaepernick began the kneeling as a way to protest black deaths at the hands of police officers, it was President Trump who played the most important role in the melodrama. The president made vulgar and unbecoming remarks about the few (at the time) players who were not standing for the anthem. The protests, which were then small and confined to a small handful of the league’s 32 teams, grew in response to Trump’s insults, until it snowballed into ESPN’s favorite topic of the year. Can you imagine a more perfect example of our dysfunctional public square than that?

Indeed, the NFL’s new mandate smells of the authoritarian flavor of the day. Conservatives who cheer on the NFL for making an example out of football players love to emphasize that the NFL is a private business and can do what it wants. Yes, and Google was a private business when it fired James Damore, and so are the elite universities that “disinvite” conservatives from speaking, and so is Facebook when it blocks pro-life advertisements, etc etc. This is a very strange time for those who adhere to traditional beliefs to be erring on the side of corporate autonomy.

The new policy is presented as a compromise between image-conscious owners and socially conscious players. But is it? According to the players who knelt, the entire point of the demonstration was not to express hatred of America or disgust at her citizens, but to express sadness for the centuries of racial animosity and violence that continue to gnaw at our country’s heel. You can make a good argument that kneeling during the Star-Spangled Banner fails to sufficiently get this message across, but you can’t argue that forcing players who want to kneel—for reasons political, or historical, or familial—to stay in the locker room, out of sight, is an authentic compromise. Rather, it’s the exact kind of conscience gerrymandering that traditionally religious Americans are used to by now, the kind that offers “freedom of religion” in a toothless, privatized sense, but denies “freedom of religious practice” in public life.

Why the implicit comparison between racial demonstrations and religious practice? For one, the similarities between the responses to each from corporate America is too much to ignore. Secondly, the NFL is a surprisingly religious league, with more openly Christian superstars than either the NBA or major league baseball. It’s not hard to imagine that the league’s aversion to peaceful (even prayerful) demonstrations during the national anthem might be a prelude to a more holistic aversion to players whose beliefs and practices are outside the mainstream.

In fact, we don’t have to imagine this, because the NFL has already told us what they think of orthodox Christianity. By threatening to punish states that protect Christian conscience from transgender dictates, the NFL has already positioned itself as a arbiter of American ethics, fit to lecture us all on morality. The anthem mandate reveals impressive depths of moral hypocrisy: The NFL doesn’t want the views of black Americans to disturb viewers’ TV experience, but it has no problem telling those who believe in “male and female, He created them” that pro football is better off without them. So much for compromises!

Given the NFL’s commitment to the right side of secular history; given its comfort with telling players to stay out of sight if they want to take a knee; and given the number of professing Christians who play pro football, doesn’t it make sense to be concerned that sooner or later, billionaire owners are going to want their players to stop posting those bigoted Bible verses on social media?

Roger Goodell and the team owners have missed a valuable opportunity. They’ve missed an opportunity to model a healthy public square, one in which people with different perspectives on rituals and anthems can dialogue with each other in public, learn from each other, and work with each other. They’ve missed, in other words, an opportunity to model the idea of America. One doesn’t need to agree with the demonstrations themselves to see the value in a sports league that errs on the side of peaceful expression and dialogue.

The water is getting choppy these days for pro football. Millennials are less interested in touchdowns and more interested in CTE. There are some who argue that the physical costs of football render it unacceptable to moral society. Count me among the number who believe, as Roger Scruton says, that valuable things are more easily torn down than built up. I only wish the NFL would agree.

Poverty, Dreher, and Story

Rod Dreher, a writer for whom I have a lot of admiration and respect, nevertheless has a tendency to overstate things, especially when those things pertain to his lived experience. Likewise, he has an unfortunate tendency to assume the worst intentions of people who push back against the conclusions he draws from his experiences. Those two flaws—which I shamefacedly confess to sharing—were on full display in the minor kerfuffle over this post. I won’t recap the mud-throwing, but suffice to say that I think Rod’s critics are right in their substantive critiques (Jemar Tisby’s, in particular), and that this whole episode might have been avoided by pondering for a few minutes longer the wisdom of defending transparently bigoted remarks by a transparently bigoted politician.

But there’s another contour to this thing that’s worth a very brief reflection. Part of what Rod was getting at in his original piece was that political correctness often runs counter to what people actually experience. This is a familiar beat to Rod, and it would be a mistake for people to assume that Rod has a vested emotional interest in punching down on poor people. If I’m reading him correctly, I think what Rod resents is the deliberate turning away from reality in favor of sentiments that play well with people who have no (literal and figurative) skin in the game. I think there’s something to say about that, and in an era of actual “reeducation” by our culture makers, the effects of Rightspeak are worth contemplation.

But I think what I’ve come away sensing is that Rod, and plenty of others, have not given enough contemplation. Instead, they’ve intuitively normalized their own experience of poor communities and downtrodden cultures into an argument. Rod’s desire to look for truth through experience is further confirmed when one considers the letters that he’s publishing as responses, as well as some responses to the responses. I think the best course of action is not only to reconsider tropes and stereotypes about the poor, but also to ask sharp questions of our tendency to equate experiences with an argument.

A lot of people have had a negative encounter with poor people or communities. And many of them choose to reason from their negative encounters to much bigger ideas about the moral quality of those in poverty. The problem with this is that one’s experiences are not worthy of such intellectual power. Yes, our experiences matter, and they can powerfully shape us, body and soul. But it doesn’t take much imagination how reasoning from experience is an awfully selective and unfair enterprise. If your only experience of poor Americans is being accosted by panhandlers, you’re likely going to reason from that experience that poor people are poor because they’d rather stand on the side of a highway off-ramp than find a job. Is the problem then that you haven’t had more experiences with poor people? Perhaps! But even if additional, more positive experiences broaden your horizon, continually over-relying on your experiences to inform you about the world will simply manifest itself in some other wrong, prejudiced, or naive way.

We see this everywhere right now. People who experienced judgement in a church might start a blog in which their experience of a relatively small number of people is extrapolated into huge, sweeping ideas about Christianity or the church. People who experience unexpected illness or health might intuit such experiences to big, specious notions about what is healthy and unhealthy (how do you think the essential oils business runs?). The point is not to discount our experiences entirely. We couldn’t do that even if we tried! The point is that piecing together our experiences and coming to a true knowledge of anything requires more than just gathering as many experiential narratives as we can.

The truth about American poverty lies far beyond the possibility of my experience, because it is indelibly rooted in history and ideas. I cannot visit the south side of Chicago for a weekend and come away with authoritative knowledge about poverty or urban policy. Nor can I justly conclude that a friend, associate, or Uber driver’s testimony is warrant enough for me to be dogmatic about an issue. My experiences and the truth are not coterminous.

I’m convinced that if Christians are going to coherently carry their witness to Christ and him crucified into future generations, we have to insist on this fact. I know Rod agrees with me, because I’ve read him long enough to know he does. I hope that he’ll apply this principle as liberally to issues of poverty and race as he does to modernism and confession.

Colin Kaepernick and Our Dysfunctional Public Square

The NAACP’s boycott of the NFL over Colin Kaepernick’s lack of a contract exemplifies in vivid focus the many ways that the American conversation about race and culture is dysfunctional. Admittedly, the stakes in this particular drama are low; whether a professional athlete is paid tens of millions of dollars to play a game or just a few million dollars is not especially rich ground for serious cultural critiques. But the omnipresence of the Kaepernick story on national sports media, and now the official response from a respected cultural institution, means that it might be time to start asking what this whole ordeal means in a tender cultural moment.

Don’t misunderstand me. The NFL deserves its fair share of animus. We know now that it almost certainly withheld important information about concussions and CTE from players for decades. The league has also taken an astonishingly capricious and hypocritical approach to players’ domestic abuse cases, and engaged in pathetic political posturing itself. If one wants to boycott the National Football League, there are good reasons to do so.

But the unemployment of Colin Kaepernick is not one of them. Nor is it an illustration of systemic injustice and institutional racism. Rather, Kaepernick’s drama has everything to do with the powerful role that media narrative plays in shaping public discourse, especially about race, and about the dispiriting lack of good faith from both whites and blacks. Contrary to what some of my white friends think, Kaepernick is not a traitor or “ungrateful.” And contrary to what some of my black friends believe, I don’t think Kaepernick is a political martyr or victim. He’s a football player, an American, and a black man, whose three identities, combustible as they might appear from reading ESPN, are completely compatible.

When Kaepernick began sitting out the national anthem during last year’s NFL season, many white fans interpreted it as a sign of disrespect for the country, for the game, and (presumably) for them. At the time that his actions began, remember, the 2016 election was still slouching toward Mar-A-Lago. Philandro Castile and Alton Sterling had both been killed by police officers, their deaths circulated on video through social media. Racial tensions were (and are) real. Thus, Kaepernick explained in a press conference after a 49ers preseason game, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way.”

Whether Kaepernick was right or wrong in his historical judgment on the United States, it would be wrong to not empathize with his perspective. Christians who believe in sinful human natures are obliged to affirm that such sinfulness can and does seep into the political and cultural superstructures that we create. To deny this would be to embrace a civic gnosticism that denies the role of individual human wills in society. White football fans who angrily dismissed Kaepernick as anti-American fail to respond to his claim. Additionally, there’s an unmissable irony in the assertions of some whites that people like Kaepernick are wrong to think about history and cultural context when they themselves are wealthy athletes. Aren’t these the same people who insist that confederate monuments ought to be protected in the name of “heritage”? If “it’s history” is why we ought not rename Jefferson Davis Highway, why should history suddenly not matter for a black quarterback who wants to talk about justice and racial equality?

This is a valuable example of the failures of the modern American conservative movement on race. It’s an unthinking tribalism that creates hypocrites out of supposedly small-government conservatives who suddenly think any questioning of law enforcement is by definition not “patriotism.” Count me out.

So does that make Kaepernick a true victim of a racist sports league? Hardly. Again, this whole episode is nothing if not a dramatic presentation of the dysfunctional public conversation about race. On the one hand are white football fans preoccupied with vacuous (and vaguely anti-free speech) notions of patriotism. But on the other hand, we see a political and media class that drives home, day after day, week after week, a conspiracy theory about a black quarterback in a black-dominated sports league.

Why is Colin Kaepernick unemployed? Lets answer that question with another question: Why do most NFL players go from active roster to free agent? There are several causes, but two are primary. The first is that they do not perform well enough to make a team’s final 53-man roster. This happens to hundreds of players in the NFL every year, many of whom were highly coveted as draft picks but for various reasons could not rise to the level that professional football demanded. The second reason is that a player can be released because he no longer wants to play under his current contract or for his current team. The NFL’s collective bargaining agreement stipulates the existence of “opt-outs” in certain contracts, where a player can choose not to return for the final year of a contract. Sometimes players do this because they are tired of playing for the team. More often they choose to do so because they believe another team would be willing to pay them more money.

Why recite these? Well, it turns out that Kaepernick actually made a fair case for meeting both of these benchmarks. Since going to a Super Bowl under Jim Harbaugh, Kaepernick’s performance with the 49ers slowly but surely declined. After Harbaugh left, the bottom fell out of Kaepernick’s play, with many analysts wondering if it had been the coach’s offensive system that allowed Kaepernick to flourish. In 2015, well before Kaepernick’s anthem protests, he lost his starting job with the 49ers and was benched. He did, however, get a second chance in 2016, being named the starter to replace a woeful Blaine Gabbert.

Which brings me to the second point. At the end of the 2016 season Kaepernick “opted-out” of his contract with the 49ers in order to hit the free agent market. Why? Presumably, he wanted to play for a team that would pay him more money than the 49ers. This is completely understandable for a professional athlete. It does mean however that Kaepernick wasn’t “cut” or disciplined for his anthem protests. Kaepernick is unemployed chiefly and most immediately because he didn’t want to play on the 49ers anymore. In other words, Kaepernick could be and most likely would be an NFL roster right now had he wanted to finish his contract with his previous team. If the NFL is determined not to allow a woke Kaepernick to play, why wasn’t he cut during the season, or prevented from playing, or cut after the season?

Nevertheless, this hasn’t stopped media outlets like ESPN and Sports Illustrated from making Kaepernick’s unemployment the dominant story in all of pro sports for a year. Never mind that players like Marshawn Lynch also do not stand for the anthem, but are currently on active rosters. Never mind that league heroes like Adrian Peterson (also on an active roster) have gone so far as to compare life in pro football to chattel slavery. Those obnoxious facts are worthless in promoting a juicy and politically powerful narrative, a narrative of corporate oppression and athletic McCarthyism. Meanwhile, sports media sits back and enjoys web traffic and headline-omnipresence as its narrative becomes stronger and stronger and polarizes more and more people.

There’s a final point that needs to be addressed. Even with all these mitigating factors, isn’t it possible that Kaepernick is a valuable symbolic figure for the struggles of African-Americans? But here’s where we should be cautious. To dismiss facts and good faith because the alternative narrative serves a valuable social purpose is precisely the kind of “post-truth” culture that generated a Trump White House. The anger that black NFL fans feel toward the NFL is rooted in misinformation and misrepresentation, both of which have been proffered by a sports media culture desperate to politicize its internal drama for maximum clickage. On the other hand, the resentment that white football fans feel toward Kaepernick and others like him is likewise often fueled by political myths and culturally convenient jargon. The result is that both of these factions scream past one another, each taking the other’s hostility as evidence they are acting in racist or anti-American bad faith. A vicious, almost impenetrable cycle of distrust, cynicism, and anger.

This is, sadly, the cultural moment we find ourselves in. It can, and must, be transcended. Our national racial wounds are deep and are in the shape of the slaveholder’s whip. Reckoning with a sinful past is never easy, either individually or corporately, but it must be done for God’s sake. And it cannot be done while seeds of hostility are sown by peddlers of narrative instead of truth.

American Atheism’s Diversity Problem

Google the words “atheism” and “demographics” together, and the odds are you’re looking for information about the rise in the number of Americans who identify as atheist or agnostic. And that’s perfectly fair; there has indeed been an unmistakeable rise for atheism, or the “Nones,” over the past decade. Unbelief has never been more in en vogue in culture than it is right now.

Assuming, of course, that the “culture” we are talking about is white male culture.

It turns out that atheism in the United States is very male and very white. According to a new one-sheeter put out by Pew Research, 68% of self-identifying atheists in the country are male, while an astonishing 78% of them are white. That means that more than half of the US’s atheist population are Caucasian males.

Contrast that with the demographic data for religious groups in the country. Pew estimates that 54% of US Catholics are female, while only 59% are white. Evangelicalism–which many atheists endlessly lampoon as whitewashed and sexist–is more diverse than atheism, with more than half of US evangelicals being female and 76% being white. Collapsing all of the divisions under the “Christian” category in Pew’s data yields numbers that are significantly more diverse both in gender and in race than the numbers for American atheism.

I find this data so interesting because, in mainstream public forums like higher education and mass media, it is typically religion that is portrayed as stifling diversity and secularism as welcoming it. Much of the literature of the New Atheists takes massive broadsides, for example, at Christian churches that practice male-only eldership or that teach that husbands are to be spiritual heads of the home. It’s amusing to think that the same authors who are accusing religious people of practicing discrimination and prejudice are forming an intellectual culture that is actually less diverse than the churches they rail against.

This data is also interesting because it demonstrates the futility of trying to compact social trends under broadly sweeping statements like, “Americans are leaving religion.” As my friend Chris Martin has pointed out, those kinds of unqualified, all-inclusive sounding statements are always click-worthy but are more often than not simply incorrect. If what we mean by “Americans” is “white, male, college-educated Americans,” then the statement becomes more responsible. But of course, such synonymity is ridiculous; America is vastly more than its white, male, thirtysomething bloc.

It would be a mistake, of course, to act as if such demographic homogeneousness was itself some kind of sophisticated argument against atheism. It’s not, just like the homogeneously white history of my own denomination is not itself an indication that the resurrection of Christ is a false doctrine. But even if such facts do not affect the truthfulness of the biggest metaphysical claims being made, they do tend to reveal an internal logic to the belief system. My denomination’s pro-slavery origins reveals a white supremacist hermeneutic, for example, that struck at the very center of how my denominational ancestors would have understood the gospel of reconciliation. That’s the power of theology; it can either build slave plantations or build a biracial marriage.

So what does that tell us about the maleness and the whiteness of American atheism?  First, atheism, as a demographic, seems to be succeeding where most of the Christian denominations are failing–namely, with men. The appeal of atheism to younger men probably has less to do with its intellectual rigor and more to do with what Ross Douthat has identified as a kind of latent boredom in the West with religious and social traditions that have been undermined by progressive culture. There is a self-preserving, rebellious character to atheism that likely appeals to the atrophied moral imaginations of young men living in a lifeless sort of post-confessional, hyper-pluralistic society.

Secondly, atheism’s demographic shortcomings among minorities suggests that its appeal is not, in fact, to people who have been on the wrong side of privilege but on the powerful side. Atheism’s success on the college campus seems to be tilted generously towards white students and not towards minority students who we might instinctively think have more of a complaint against the “power structures” of religion. This too would be a significant corrective to the image of atheism and religion that is often presented in college and in media.

In any event, the whiteness and maleness of American atheism is a fascinating demographic reality and not one, I think, that many would expect or assume. Truth is sneaky like that, I suppose.