Immediately after graduation from college, I signed on to become an assistant football coach at DeLaSalle High School in Bridgeport in Chicago. Nestled in the shadow of old Comiskey Park, the alma mater of the Daley clan and many other city power brokers and city workers, the school is, and was, a mixture of kids – in addition to the base of Bridgeport students, it had tough Irish kids from Canaryville, middle class white kids from the Southwest suburbs, African-American kids from the adjacent neighborhood and nearby housing projects, Hispanic kids from Little Village and Brighton Park, and some Asian kids from Chinatown. We had a pretty good team, and had only two losses, one of which was to local powerhouse, St. Rita.
Our team was an ethnic and racial crayon box. Our secondary had one of everything. I had one Irish player, one Asian, one Hispanic and one African American kid. I nicknamed that unit the “Rainbow Coalition,” a nickname that they reveled in. They were all very coachable, communicated well with each other and took great pride in being one of the best units in the Catholic League. One day, my little African American cornerback came to the practice field sporting a headband and wristbands in yellow, black and red colors. Curtis was an enthusiastic, bouncy kid, with an ear to ear smile that always lit you up. “What’s with the colors, Curtis?” I asked. “It’s African pride, Coach. I have African pride.” “Well, you should have pride in your heritage, Curtis. I have pride in mine, too. But on this field we are all blue and gold. That’s the rules. We all wear blue and gold.” Curtis harumphed a bit, took them off and put them back in his locker. We went on to a 7-2 season and almost all those kids went on to have a nice varsity career, and many went on to play in college. While it may have seen a bit rigid to make Curtis put away his African colored apparel, I wanted to make a small, but important point- that whatever tribe you come from, that membership was now subordinate to membership in OUR tribe.
Much has been said and written about Colin Kaepernick’s protests in the N.F.L. and the protests of some of the other players following suit. I needn’t repeat them here, but I will offer my own reasons for turning off the N.F.L. for now.
Having played football, coached and followed the NFL for nearly 50 years, I always saw football as a great unifier. No matter what walk of life you came from, no matter what your socioeconomic background, race or religion, if you could run, block, tackle, throw or catch, there was a place for you in this game. You didn’t need special training or facilities. Unlike baseball, tennis, golf or skating, football does not require private coaching or expensive equipment to reach an elite level. Football also creates a bond and a brotherhood like no other sport. Perhaps the most illustrative presentation of this was given by Bill Curry and I urge you to watch his talk “The Huddle” on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IGuFy2TBIag). Unlike baseball, there was no negro league for football. Yes, it took awhile for the N.F.L. to warm up to black quarterbacks and there as still not enough black head coaches in football, but football was generally at the forefront of civil rights. Men like Vince Lombardi and Bill Walsh led the league in promoting racial equality. Unlike baseball and hockey, you have to have at least some college to play professional football and many African American men leveraged their degrees and their playing experience to become extremely successful in careers outside football. For instance, Alan Page became a justice on the Minnesota Supreme Court and Willie Davis received an MBA from the University of Chicago and became a very wealthy business owner in California.
Football gives us an opportunity to set aside our differences, blot out our problems and for a few hours focus on the contest. Its pageantry, drama and emotionality lend itself to patriotism. Who could forget Whitney Houston’s emotional rendition of the national anthem during the Gulf War in 1991? During the frightening financial crisis in the fall of 2008, when it seemed that the United States was headed for a second Great Depression, football gave us all relief and a distraction from the extreme anxiety for at least a few hours on Sunday. In my view, football serves to erase social frictions and diverts us from our day-to-day stresses. That is part of what we are buying when we buy a ticket or watch a game on TV.
But Mr. Kaepernick wants to drag all that back in. If Mr. Kaepernick and his malcontented colleagues wish to do that, it is their right, but they have thrown cold water on the very reason I (and many like me) watch N.F.L. games.
In addition to ruining a primary reason for watching the game, Kaepernick and his supporters have also shown disrespect for the country as a whole and police officers in particular. While there are racist cops, to be sure, the vast majority put themselves on the line every day to protect minorities. By wearing pig socks, Kaepernick is engaged in exactly the kind of behavior he purportedly objects to--- that is disrespecting ALL members of a single group. And of course, the irony is not lost on NFL fans that police officers show up to games to protect Kaepernick, whose salary is many times theirs.
In addition to disrespecting existing police officers, Kaepernick’s behavior raises my ire another level by dishonoring the memory of my father. My father joined the Chicago Police Department in 1958, at a time when African Americans were beginning to join the force in large numbers. There was quite a bit of friction at the time, but my father willingly took on black partners, befriended them, and had them over to our home. Other white cops were mean to them, and my father was revulsed by some of the things that other white cops said and did in those early years and he would have none of that. Like many cops today, my father also put himself on the line to protect blacks. He was a compassionate man and always treated people fairly and justly. The pig socks Kaepernick wears disrespects his memory and lumps him with the bad eggs Kaepernick has a beef about.
Kaepernick hasn’t landed a roster spot yet this year. Many argue that his ratings warrant a job in the N.F.L. But a quarterback’s job is so much more than ringing up stats. It is to build a diverse group into a cohesive unit. Kaepernick by his actions, almost guaranteed to be divisive. Further, since a large proportion of N.F.L. fans are patriotic people, we have already seen demonstrated evidence that his antics have diminished interest in football. It’s hard to get a job when you are doing things that have a quantifiable negative impact on the cash flow of your employer. Kaepernick is to the N.F.L.’s brand what salmonella is to Chipotle’s.
The N.F.L. is complicit in all this. The league has rules about everything from touchdown celebrations to minute rules about uniforms. But it has not taken a stand on the show of disrespect for the flag and the national anthem.
College students now demand “safe spaces” and football has always been one of mine. Football is a game that is meant to bring us together. Kaepernick and others are now trying to use it to tear us apart, and I won’t participate in that if that becomes part of the N.F.L. You guys sit out the national anthem and I will sit out the N.F.L. There is plenty of good college and high school football to watch.