Donald Trump may yet rue the day he went walking on the fighting side of Vince Wilfork.
And not just because the retired NFL defensive tackle weighs 325 pounds and came out of college able to bench press 225 pounds 36 times in a row.
Trump, of course, set the sports world aflame this weekend when he verbally abused NFL players whom he accused of showing disrespect to the American national anthem during pre-game ceremonies.
In typical inflammatory fashion, his remarks turned a circumstance largely involving only former San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick into a significant cultural eruption. During the 2016 NFL season, to protest the killing of blacks by white police officers, Kaepernick made a one-man point of refusing to stand for the anthem.
His behaviour was controversial. There’s speculation his career ended in San Francisco because he was tagged as a discipline problem. Given that he led the team to the Super Bowl game in his rookie season, but was then passed over by every team in the league once he left the 49ers, it’s probable he was a pro football pariah. Still, the ambit of his activism was a relatively small circle of professional athletes.
Then came Sunday. Following Trump’s remarks, players from two teams refused to leave their locker rooms during the anthem. Many who did take the field in other games took a knee to protest the president’s verbal and Twitter attacks. Some, including the majestic Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots, locked arms in solidarity.
Patriots’ owner Robert Kraft, who donated more than $1 million to Trump’s election campaign, said he was “deeply disappointed” the country’s leader would seek to supress the players’ rights to limited, peaceful, public dissent. Kraft was not alone. Other high profile owners joined in telling Trump to button his lip about NFL business.
Yet it was Wilfork, the two-time Super Bowl winning defensive behemoth, who pinpointed the problem most precisely. While he stood stalwart behind what he called the “brotherhood of sport,” Wilfork characterized Trump’s comments not just as a political attack on athletes, but on democratic order itself. Whatever else NFL players are, he said, they are citizens.
“(Trump’s) a leader of this country, and to talk to citizens the way he did, no matter what is going on…is unacceptable,” Wilfork said. “I don’t give a damn who he is.”
Citizens. Not just players. Not even sports heroes. Citizens.
It is a fool’s game to predict anything involving Donald Trump. Yet if there’s a sentence that reset the most powerful country in the world back on a course to sanity, Wilfork’s words comprise it. They serve as a reminder that the bemoaning of politics intruding on sports obscures the real problem, which is sport becoming the means for politics.
My Cardus colleague Ray Pennings has written eloquently about the pernicious damage of transforming political parties from vehicles for belief into mechanisms for marketing illusory images. And in all of human history, there are few forces as powerful for selling illusions as the marketing machinery behind North American professional sport. Consider the conversion of democratic politics from a coalescence of ideas into perpetual winner-take-all competition, and you begin to see the effects of combining metaphors of sport with the purveying of electoral promise.
For starters, as was once said long ago of sport, winning in politics isn’t everything. Now, it’s the only thing. The leader who loses inevitably must resign. Candidates who can’t carry elections are rarely given a second, much less a third, shot. Parties themselves operate like red-team/blue team professional franchises; we no longer vote so much as cheer for the home brand, favoured the logo, and this year’s crafted marquee personalities.
The binary structure now shapes the essence of our own political debate and thinking. An idea is worthy or unworthy on the basis of its ideological arena. Say where it plays, and you’ll know whether it’s good or bad. Such suspension of judgment reduces democracy to demographics: your market niche is presumed to pre-determine your position on everything.
Donald Trump did not create these conditions. But as I’ve argued elsewhere, he did bring to politics the toxic cynicism of his apprenticeship in professional wrestling. He brought the trash talk, the braggadocio, the curled lip feigned disdain, yes, but something more. He brought the conviction that none of it matters because none of it is real anyway. Politics is about gaining the championship belt/trophy/cup/ring, which changes hands every time you turn around. Everything is all just a game.
Which is where Vince Wilfork’s words become so important. No, says the genuine athletic champion who played at the highest level of his sport as someone who was one of the best to ever play his position, everything isn’t just a game. Being a citizen is most serious matter. It endures. It endures as the foundational order of democracy. That order is derived from the Judeo-Christian truth that we are all children of God. No prime minister, no president, no potentate is closer to God than the ordinary man in the street.
“I don’t give a damn who he is,” Wilfork said. “It’s unacceptable.
That single line might yet carry more weight than Vince Wilfork bench pressing more than 8,000 pounds in a single setting.
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