Last year, when it seemed at least possible that November would mark the end of Donald Trump’s particular brand of American madness rather than its true launching pad, I talked to cultural critic Chuck Klosterman about the local NFL team’s name for a column over at Washington City Paper.
Klosterman was doing the rounds in support of his then-new book But What If We’re Wrong? Thinking About The Present As If It Were The Past. The thesis of the book (very crudely summarized) is that we tend to think of the past as a time when people held ridiculous ideas that look stupid in hindsight, and of the present as a time of more enlightened, scientific thinking.
Klosterman’s approach is to consider the possibility that our current ideas (about science, about culture, about everything) will look just as preposterous to a future audience as Aristotle’s belief that rocks don’t float because they want to be closer to the Earth looks to us now, and I thought the neverending name controversy would be an interesting topic to look at through that lens. So the meat of the column (and the bulk of the interview) basically consisted of us spitballing various possible outcomes to the name controversy, from the ridiculous-sounding to the incrementally less-ridiculous-sounding.
By the nature of Klosterman’s thesis, anything that didn’t sound sufficiently ridiculous had to be discarded as unlikely to occur, so we were really trying to stretch credulity; perhaps the best example of this was the idea of “woke Dan Snyder” becoming socially aware and changing the name himself.
In light of reports this week that the NFL owners will not force the players to stand during the national anthem, and of the president’s subsequent tweet condemning that report, I found myself looking back at one part of that column with a weird combination of depressed awe and mild amusement:
In discussing the idea that one way the team name might persist is if football becomes a niche sport (because of concussions or violence or general cultural disapproval), Klosterman suggested that if “Football survives because of its violence and it takes on a political meaning that suggests a certain kind of ideology about life,” then it was possible to see “this idea of the Redskin name being part of tradition becomes a stronger argument, at least to the people in that group, in that they’re saying that football is the way to kind of tie back into a world that has changed, and whatever that world was is what we want to perpetuate.”
That is, if football becomes a niche sport, the team name would stick around because the sort of people who still liked the violence and suddenness of the sport would also want to maintain a team name that some groups in the past had found offensive.
If you abstract further–or read more deeply between the lines–it seems clear that what’s being said is “If football sticks around as a niche sport in the future, it’s popularity will be with the kind of demographic that likes violence and thinks only snowflakes care about hurt feelings.” The corollary assumption, of course, is that high-minded liberal elites would’ve moved on to basketball or curling or parkour or whatever, leaving football to those masses without a backward look.
Somehow, neither of us realized that this was exactly the kind of obvious, linear-narrative assumption that Klosterman’s own thesis told us to avoid.
Here’s San Francisco 49ers co-owner Jed York from this week’s owners’ meeting, as quoted in a piece on TheMMQB.com with the headline “NFL Owners Side With Players Over President”:
“Everybody understands that we’re going to get baited, whether it’s from the President or whether it’s from other detractors. We need to be above petty attacks from anybody, because racial and socioeconomic inequality has existed in this country for too long. We need to get the focus on that, and we need to make sure that we make progress there.”
That is an NFL owner–not a cohort that’s notoriously concerned with social causes–openly taking sides in support of his protesting players, and against the nationalist, #MAGA, theoretically-white-American-mainstream view. The owners taking that position means that, if any group seems likely to make the reactionary move and abandon football fandom, it’s not going to be the socially liberal crowd. Which further means that we may very well be approaching the point where the NFL becomes the de facto thinking fan’s sport, and the idea of people “saying that football is the way to kind of tie back into a world that has changed,” as Klosterman put it, will be the exact opposite of the ones we originally expected.
And it didn’t take us three hundred years to get to this point, or thirty or even three. It took sixteen months. Maybe woke Dan Snyder wasn’t such a far-fetched idea at all. (NOTE: No, that idea is still completely preposterous.)
(Photo by Keith Allison, used under Creative Commons license.)