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By Mark Naison | With thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)

 

Tuesday, February 5, 2013.

 

I woke up yesterday with a profound sense of sadness and ambivalence about Sunday's Super Bowl, an event which exposed powerful cracks in the facade of power and invulnerability which we like to project to the rest of the world—and to ourselves. Between the incredibly moving performance of the chorus from Sandy Hook elementary school, and the blackout, which brought the game to a halt for 35 minutes, no one could mistake this event for an arrogant celebration of American immunity from tragedy. That no one planning the event, or announcing it, ever mentioned the thousands of people who had sought refuge in the Super Dome following Hurricane Katrina, and turned it into a symbol of American indifference and cruelty to its poor only added to the Bad Karma. If you were a person with a taste for metaphor, you could even regard the blackout "Katrina's Revenge."

 

As for the game itself, I loved it—the drama, the passion, the incredible athleticism displayed by the receivers and the kick returners, and the arm strength of both quarterbacks. But there were some hits during the game that were so hard and violent that I was forced to examine my own immersion in the contest and ask "should anyone really be playing this game?" Each year, the players get bigger and faster and the full speed collisions get more damaging. Should our entire culture be organized around a sport that subjects its participants to permanent physical and mental damage?

 

The experience forced me to interrogate the sources of my own addiction to the sport, an addiction rooted deep in my childhood From the age of 8 on, football was one of the ways I marked my passage into sometimes cruel and demanding world of working class masculinity. Whether it was watching the Giants on Sundays with my uncle Mac, dodging cars to play touch in the street, or dragging five kids down the field during pickup games in the local park, football became one of my chosen vehicles to win respect in a tough neighborhood even though I wore glasses and skipped third grade. Although I was marked off for difference by ambitious parents and academic success, football was a space where I could erase those differences and become an initiate in the church of heteronormative masculinity.

 

The skills I learned from playing and watching the games could bond me instantly with tough, socially dominant men and boys wherever I met them. it gave me immunity from the victimization that was the fate of many of my male peers who loved books, loved school, loved learning as much as I did. Through playing it, watching it and talking about it, I could instantly bond with people who might otherwise be predisposed to attack me, ridicule me, or ignore me.

 

This immersion in the game continued through college and young adulthood, where I played football constantly even though tennis was my varsity sport. Being able to throw a football sixty yards and smash through blocks when playing linebacker produced instant acceptance, whether it was in Columbia intramurals, schoolyard games in Harlem, a rough touch league in then Irish Inwood, or a lawyers league in Central Park.

 

My immersion in this profoundly male space continued, virtually unchecked, through my radicalization through the Civil Rights movement, and even my exposure to, and ultimate embrace, of radical feminism. Although I became acutely aware of and uncomfortable with, racist and sexist dimensions of football in both its institutional forms and its grass roots local manifestations- I couldn't give up what I had gotten, and continued to get from the game- a feeling of power and competence validated by camaraderie with the country's toughest men, a group of which I considered myself a part.

 

I cannot say that my experience with the game reflects that of many other men, much less that of women. But it does suggest how powerfully embedded football is in the shaping of gender identities in this society, and how difficult it will be to wean people away from it even when they see its destructive power.

 

***

 

Mark Naison is a Professor of African-American Studies and History at Fordham University and Director of Fordham’s Urban Studies Program. He is the author of two books, Communists in Harlem During the Depression and White Boy: A Memoir. Naison is also co-director of the Bronx African American History Project (BAAHP). Research from the BAAHP will be published in a forthcoming collection of oral histories Before the Fires: An Oral History of African American Life From the 1930’s to the 1960’s.

 

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