Drew Brees’ comments about his fellow players decision to kneel during the National Anthem illustrate the persistence of the psychology of white ownership of black bodies. Brees went on to rationalize his position saying that the American flag reminded him of his grandfather’s service during World War II. His comments illustrate a particularly interesting framing of his discussion: Patriotism is about the lived experiences of those considered to be “great” Americans – their sacrifice and their service – but not about speaking truth about the lived experiences of people of color. Although he has since apologized for his initial comments, they nonetheless still represent the enduring problem with sports and patriotism in America.
Sports, and in particular American football, have been increasingly politicized through the lens of American patriotism. Physical and mental attributes of both soldiers and athletes are merged into an ideal vision of masculinity which also intersects with race and class. In this context, soldiers and athletes have represented an American masculine archetype by which white and black males have been measured. Let’s take a moment now to consider how Pat Tillman – the Arizona Cardinal player who gave up his career to serve as a US Army Ranger – has been brought forward as one of the exemplars of American values and contrast with how Colin Kaepernick – the San Francisco player who kneeled during the National Anthem to protest police brutality. The psychology of this contrast is made clear through a patriotic lens. For example, American patriotic identity is dominated by multiple interconnected spheres which help us see how Tillman and Kaepernick contrast: 1) a state of being and concept of ideal identity; 2) socio-normative structures which support ideal identity dynamics; and, 3) a body of language which supports the ideal identity. Ideal identity – an archetype – is a socially constructed body of attributes to which others are measured. American archetypes have predominantly been white males – the military general or the baseball player – while black males are either provisionally accepted within the cultural norm or shunned altogether. While players like Tillman have been canonized within heroic lore for his service and sacrifice, Black males have been included insofar as their participation was viewed favorably by the white public. Let’s not forget Kaepernick was considered an up and coming great player until he started speaking out for injustice; people have forgotten that he very nearly won a Super Bowl in February 2016.
Culturally hegemonic, socio-normative structures have reinforced the American archetype. 100 percent of the principle owners of NFL football teams is white. Twenty-nine of 32 coaches are white. Seventy percent of NFL players as of 2020 is black. What is more is NFL fan culture which amplifies the commodification and illiberally skewed power dynamic over fetishized black bodies. All of this habituates a culture of governance by white males over black males. When seen through the lens of patriotism, we can see American patriotism and racism in America are packed within the same language and symbolism which locks American patriotic identity within a nuanced polar paradigm at the intersection of race, class, and gender.
American patriotism is built upon a belief system and a body of language which becomes the foundation of masculine identity as well as masculine authority and dominance which subverts the psychological, physical, and moral perspectives outside the American archetype. Historically, participation by black males within racialized spaces – both sports and the military – provided agency for black males to advance political and social narratives like their own equality. The role of Black athletes, in particular, within the black community has often existed as the representative embodiment of black masculinity – asserting control of his body; representing defiance through victory in battle against a structure which often usurps and fetishizes black bodies. Most black athletes shouldered the burden of representing the voice of those who could not speak up within their community – what many called the Heritage.
The fetishized black athlete is contrasted with the black intellectual – the academic, the religious leader, and the political or social leader – which has also been a leading voice within the black community but, the athlete attains a status which is arguably most revered. Nonetheless, their participation within the American archetype is complex and, often, tenuous with regard to individual identity, their relationship with the black community, and how they are viewed in contrast to the American archetype.
Drew Brees’ comments fall squarely within this narrative of the American archetype as seen through the lens of patriotism. By focusing solely on his vantage – until he was shamed into stepping outside his limited perspective – he illustrated how in America in 2020 the lived experiences black men matter so little in most white minds. The fact we are still having to assert our humanity is what is so astounding. But the most disappointing part of this latest incident is that even white allies do not understand our humanity, our lived experience, and our suffering in America in the 21st century.