Football and Philosophy
“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it” (Marx, Theses on Feuerbach, p402).
By Hanna Lourda
Winnie Mandela — a philosopher of the highest order
Introduction This paper is written in light of the philosophical teachings of today’s People’s Representatives. A perusal of any curricula for philosophy classes in this country will mirror the latest note from our professor in which he gave us a list of philosophers to study: with one exception (Confucius, who was the ideological representative of the landlord class in China 1,600 years ago), the group of luminaries is entirely heterosexual European men, a small geographic representation of the world’s people, a group mostly from hundreds of years ago, and a wholly segregated group gender-wise, and by sexual orientation. Of paramount importance is who these White men, which classes, they represented. With one exception, these men represent the propertied classes of Europe and the U.S., the slave owners, the bourgeoisie and the feudal nobility. Kant, Kierkegaard, Calvin, Hegel, Rousseau, Thomas Paine, Nietzsche, Descartes, Wittgenstein, Russel, Hobbes, John Stuart Mill, all old, tired, crusty, dusty representatives of classes that no longer exist or are dying — pre-monopoly capitalism; spokespersons for the exploiting classes, most of which have long since left the historical stage (Althusser, pp116–121). This paper is written in light of the teachings of the representatives of what is new and emerging in this world. Sean Paul Sartre is the only European male in the list provided us who does not represent the ruling classes of Europe. He devoted his entire life to the people’s cause. He was a communist revolutionary. We love him.
This essay will use philosophical principles associated with the transition from the market economy of the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe to the monopoly phase of world capitalism characteristic of the 20th and 21st centuries (Lenin, 1963). These philosophical principles will be applied to the phenomenon of American football, particularly to the phenomenal popularity and singular place in the entertainment industry of the U.S. of the National Football League.
Football’s influence on childhood development Football played a significant role in my childhood, and in the development of my sense of self as a young girl. Following events in football, and trying to play the game as a child led me through stages of my understanding of where I fit in this world which mirror that of many other people, many working class and poor people, many women, many sports fans, many athletes, and many People of Color. This essay looks at football from the perspective of the impact of culture on social and philosophical thought. And it looks at culture from the philosophical principles of those who would use culture to promote the cause of the oppressed (Marx, 1963; Lenin, 1972).
It is the thesis of this essay that professional football in the United States holds within it, as within a hologram, some of the most glaring social contradictions of our time on planet Earth.
Earl Campbell and Women’s Rights I grew up in a football lover’s family. One of my first memories of the experience of envy, as I look back from adulthood, was watching Earl Campbell of the Houston Oilers. My brothers were each older than I was and they were already playing football when I was four or five years old. They were also huge fans of the Houston Oilers who were led by the great running back Earl Campbell. I remember them watching the AFC championship game between Houston and the Buffalo Bills, and the hysterical, emotional ups and downs my brothers experienced with each play of the game. It looked like fun. They especially were enraptured with the play of Early Campbell, who it seemed, might be able to win the game all by himself. At this young age I felt left out in the midst of the high tension. I guess I wanted to be noticed — the game had been going on for more than two hours, and I don’t remember anyone saying one word to me the entire time. I envied the attention Earl Campbell was getting from my entire family. So, I took one of my brothers football helmets, donned it on my head, and walked calmly in front of the TV set. My brothers shrieked in horror as I was blocking their view of an important play! Indeed, as I look back it was a blatant form of protest of a five-year-old to gain my brothers’ attention. (Houston ultimately lost the game!)
I would later be that girl who wanted to play football with my brothers, and then on the girls football team at school. It was a time when women’s rights fell back and forth between advocating for a woman’s perspective on the way society was being run — anti-militarism, against war, promoting the values of love and care, of family, of warmth and nurturing in our relationships, versus competition, which was understood to be male — on one side, and simply advocating that women be able to do everything that men did: play football, be in the military, be executives in corporations, on the other. In my teenage years, my body and mind were jostled between these two understandings of “women’s liberation.”
CTE and the Profit Motive Meanwhile, the entire society was being affected by events which seemed to directly pit me against the main impulses governing America, particularly its vast wealth in the face of extreme poverty (the U.S, has the largest gap between rich and poor of any country in the world; see Sherman, 2015); its seeming lack of any morality in the way it would go to other countries, make war so that it could take their oil (Juhasz, 2015), and then blame this war on the religion of the people they were attacking (Shachtman, 2012). In this time, at the beginning of the wars waged by the United States against the people of Iraq, Afghanistan and Colombia, I became acquainted with philosophical principles which would change my entire outlook on life. Each came from the perspective enunciated by Karl Marx in the masthead of this paper: If philosophical principles were to be of any value, these thinkers averred, they had to address issues of oppression, and issues of how to change the world for the better, for a better life for the world’s people. In his essay, “Where do Correct Ideas come from?” Mao Zedong (from one of the six continents on planet Earth other than Europe) directly opposed the armchair philosophers who watch with arms folded, while they spout their observations, totally outside of the fray of daily events. Mao insisted that social practice, particularly the practice of fighting to make a better world, is the soil from which correct ideas sprout. “Where do correct ideas come from? Do they drop from the skies? No. Are they innate in the mind? No. They come from social practice, and from it alone;…[T]he one and only purpose of the [oppressed] in knowing the world is to change it” (1963).
I became attracted to people’s spokespersons like Winnie Mandela. She too liked football (it was what we in the U.S. call “soccer”). Unofficial head of the guerrilla army fighting to bring down apartheid in South Africa, she would go disguised to football games where thousands of her people were ostensibly cheering on the players. She would sneak into the crowd and at the agreed upon moment she would break out with her microphone and harangue the people: “Yes, we are at the negotiating table. But, if the negotiations break down, we will go right back into the bush with our AK-47’s slung over our shoulders…” (Mandela, 1985). This is a people’s philosopher, ushering us to move forward and bring us into a new era of human history.
Under the guidance of such philosophical teachings, I no longer felt the need to be part of the football game in order to be “equal” to men. I no longer wanted to be allowed to join the army so that I could kill innocent women and children in Iraq for the purpose of enriching Exxon-Mobile. This was no longer “equality” to me. Again, speaking of the choice between the old armchair observer, on one hand, and the vibrancy of a life devoted to changing the world for the better, Mao Zedong told me:
I care not that the wind blows
And the waves beat.
It is better than idly strolling
in a courtyard.
A few years later it came out that football was killing its players. The disease CTE was discovered. The NFL responded like a multi-billion dollar corporation — they did everything they could to cover it up. As white supremacist as the U.S. corporate norm is, this corporation was sending White men out onto the field to contract a brain disease. Just as they send, not only poor People of Color to die in their wars, they send working class White men too — for what purpose?
The below excerpts from a Letter to the Editor to the Boston Globe are quoted at length because of how faithfully the viewpoint offered mirrors my emerging sense of what football is for me, and what role it plays in the society as a whole.
Pro Football and Socialism
…As large a role as pro football plays in U.S. culture, it is necessary to go beyond mere sports analysis to full-blown social analysis in order to understand ourselves.
[F]ootball has replaced baseball as the cultural reflection of present-day capitalist society. The “workers” are as specialized as those of the most alienating sweatshop/factory: the offensive tackle has none of the skills necessary to play defensive back; no quarterback would last five minutes at linebacker. Indeed, a German reporter covering “our special secular holiday, the super bowl,” asked a defensive end (in a heavy German accent): “What is your relationship to the football?” The wide-eyed end urgently replied, “Strictly platonic!”
What other area of our culture throws up mid-level managers (in this case, Bill Belichick, the coach) to give lectures on “how to” to corporate CEO’s? And what other cultural phenomena approximates the endemic violence of every-day life more than football?
And, again,…football represent[s] the highest phase of capitalism, the imperialist phase: the NFL is raking in fabulous profits while operating at the top on “semi-socialist principles.”
Yes, as many social analysts have concluded, the monopoly phase of capitalism (imperialism), where those at the top “share” with each other, is the threshold of socialism (Boston Globe, 11/20/2005)
Colin Kaepernick and other High Paid Slaves While the NFL does everything in its vast power to cover up the manifestly unhealthy core of the sport, Black football players are taking it upon themselves to be spokespersons for the oppressed — in this case for the unarmed Black men who are being gunned down at record rates, routinely, by police all across the country. (Should we ask Heidegger if this is a legitimate subject for a philosopher?) Colin Kaepernick got most of the headlines, but there are numerous African American football players who have been taking very future-oriented public stands in favor of the people. Witness this statement by Michael Bennet, All-Pro Defensive End of the Seattle Seahawks, on the subject of International Women’s Day:
“As a black man in America, I sometimes get overwhelmed and discouraged by what I see — from the police killings of unarmed black men, to the unequal educational system, to the mass incarceration of poor people of color in for-profit prisons. But when I look in my daughters’ eyes, I see the courage of Harriet Tubman, the patience of Rosa Parks, the soul of Ida B. Wells, the passion of Fannie Lou Hamer and the heart of Angela Davis. I see the future. I see hope. And I’m inspired because it will be women who lead the future. That is why I am writing to express my unconditional solidarity with the women’s strike on International Women’s Day, March 8.
“It would be easy for me to say that I am supporting this day of resistance because I have three daughters and I want nothing to stand in their way as they attempt to achieve their goals. I could also say that I am doing this because my wife, Pele — my best friend and soulmate — is of Samoan descent and has lived the struggle of being a woman and the daughter of immigrants. But this issue is a lot bigger than my dreams for my own family. It’s about the women across the earth who are suffering: women who are less worried about a glass ceiling than they are about a collapsing floor. It’s about women of color across the earth who live on less than one dollar a day. It’s about all women who are subject to sexual assault and violence.
Michael Bennet, his wife and three daughters
“I stand with the women’s strike because I agree with the unity statement from the strike’s platform, which reads that this day is ‘organized by and for women who have been marginalized and silenced by decades of neoliberalism directed towards working women, women of color, Native women, disabled women, immigrant women, Muslim women, lesbian, queer and trans women.’
“I encourage my fellow football players to join me in standing with these brave women from across the world. As Angela Davis once said, ‘To understand how any society functions you must understand the relationship between the men and the women.’ By that metric, our society is failing. We need change, and to quote Frederick Douglass, ‘If there is no struggle there is no progress’” (March 8, 2017).
I must ask, in the face of the evidence above amassed: Which set of philosophers should I and mine listen to: old, dusty, European slave owners, or Angela Davis, Winnie Mandela and Assata Shakur — philosophers all? Indeed, football became transformed “before my eyes,” once I adopted philosophical principles which gave genuine meaning to my life.
Althusser, Louis. (1971). Lenin and philosophy. Monthly Review Press.
Bennett, Michael. (2016). “Why I stand with the women’s strike.” https://www.theplayerstribune.com/en-us/articles/michael-bennett-international-womens-day-womens-strike
Juhasz, Antonia. (2015).“Why the war in Iraq was fought for Big Oil.” CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2013/03/19/opinion/iraq-war-oil-juhasz/index.html
Lenin, V.I. (1963). Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism. Progress Publishers.
Lenin, V.I. (1972). Materialism and empirio-criticism. Foreign Languages Press.
Lynn, Alexander. (2005). “Pro football and socialism.” Letters to the Editor, Boston Globe.
Mandela, Winnie. (1985). Part of my heart went with him. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Marx, Karl, (1967). “Theses on Feuerbach.” In Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society.
Marx. (1963). The poverty of philosophy. International Publishers.
Mao Zedong. (1963). “Where do correct ideas come from?” In Selected Works of Mao Zedong. Foreign Languages Press.
Shachtman, Noah and Spencer Ackerman. (2012). “The U.S. military taught officers: Use ‘Hiroshma’ tactics for ‘Total War’ on Islam.” Wired. https://www.wired.com/2012/05/total-war-islam/
Sherman, Eric. (2015). “America is the richest, and most unequal, country.” Fortune. http://fortune.com/2015/09/30/america-wealth-inequality/