From the January-February 2023 issue of News & Letters
The whole nation is fascinated by football. In prison everyone is captivated by the game: the excitement of a player getting hit by someone from the opposing team. The reality, rather than mere entertainment, was brought home on Jan. 2, when Damar Hamlin, a 24-year-old Buffalo Bills safety, collapsed on the field.
Football is a gladiator sport. It is a distraction every bit as crucial to propping up this system as circuses were in ancient Rome. Standing while the national anthem is played with a hand on your heart is a continuation of a history of oppression. You first become subject to this symbolism in kindergarten when you have to recite the pledge of allegiance.
KAEPERNICK SAID ‘NO!’
Colin Kaepernick as an individual had the courage to say no to this tradition. After George Floyd’s murder he put himself on the line by kneeling during the anthem, thus ending his chances for a career in sports. He said he wanted to show his opposition to police murders of oppressed peoples. Police are there to protect the system.
Kaepernick got very little solidarity from other players. For most, their whole life is centered on chasing the dream of playing in the big leagues. They also know by experience, and have internalized, that Blacks are met with terrorism when they speak out against racist oppression.
It was otherwise when Damar Hamlin’s heart stopped after he took a severe blow to the chest. Medical staff attended to him right away. They are a part of the masquerade that the football industry does everything to keep the players healthy. In reality everything is geared to “the show must go on.”
Whereas before Hamlin’s collapse, the talk was of the importance of this game for either team, immediately after his collapse players of both teams stopped, expressing remarkable solidarity in their concern for Hamlin. It was that human moment that led to cancelling the game.
The commentators did not know what to make of it. Many of them are former football players, and they talked about how injuries, even very severe injuries, are normal given the violent nature of the game. One fool commentator even said, “The game must go on.”
A DREAM OF ESCAPING POVERTY
Becoming a football player is many families’ dream. Children are treated as a commodity, groomed to become cannon fodder for this industry. It is packaged as a hope to get out of poverty for the whole family.
Many children whose families do not have health insurance are pushed to play. When they get seriously hurt, parents, specifically the mothers in most poor neighborhoods, are left to provide total care for that child who has become collateral damage of the circus of “Friday night lights.” She might have to refurbish the whole house, install lifts, etc., to help the young man get out of bed.
In my own family I have seen the submission to this gross illusion that playing football is a chance for a child to have a better life. During the pandemic, when schools were shut down and sports were not being played, they discussed moving the whole family to Arizona so their high-school-age son would have opportunities to show his athletic skill in hopes of getting a college scholarship.
DIFFICULTY OF ESCAPING CAPITALISM
But even if you succeed, your career is usually short. Even if you stay healthy and retire, most players are broke again shortly after. Every level at which humans exist is a maze created by capitalism. There is no way out. The perceived privilege of tentative, temporary luxury is only a fleeting amelioration of the general misery.
Moments of solidarity by all players, Black and white, as we witnessed on Jan. 2, point a path out of capitalism’s maze. We experienced such a moment during the hunger strikes in 2011-13 at Pelican Bay, when we stood up against the division into gangs based on race. We created a new sense of who we are by recognizing each other’s humanity. The tenor of our whole lives in prison had been dictated by the prison guards, and the prison system itself, turning us into gladiators.
Unlike in football, in prison the gladiator fights were not mere entertainment (though guards would stage fights for their entertainment, too), but a means of control of the prison population. Setting us against each other distracts us from becoming a threat to the system. The race-based gang system created by the prison caused such chaos that it led to the ultimate form of total control, the massive use of the unconscionable torture of indefinite solitary confinement.
Our cross-racial solidarity in the hunger strikes was the moment we asserted ourselves as humans. It was so powerful a moment that it spoke to many throughout the prisons and on the outside. It ended the practice of indefinite solitary confinement in California.
That’s when I saw that what could make a difference is not just a moment but a philosophy that captures the meaning of being human as the ongoing experience of human solidarity.