“An alternative league would be the antithesis of the NFL and also take its cue from ‘Bingo Long’s Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings.’”
The National Football League’s new national anthem policy is a breathtaking display of arrogance, racism and disrespect for sincere acts of conscience by players concerned about the epidemic of police violence that plagues black communities. The league’s new rules require players to stand and “show respect” for the flag during the anthem. Players unwilling to cooperate must remain in the locker room.
The NFL really has nerve. Can we even imagine military officials telling a young Muhammad Ali that not only must he enlist, but if he wants to protest the Vietnam War, he may write a polite confidential letter to the Pentagon? Or, suppose that 1968 Olympic officials had told John Carlos and Tommie Smith that they could not raise gloved fists during the awards ceremony, but they could have a private conversation about racial issues with fellow athletes in the Olympic hotel. Neither scenario occurred, but we are safe in assuming that such suggestions would have been met by immediate militant rejection. The heroic character of Ali, Carlos and Smith would not permit them to compromise their principles.
“There may be more than a few players with courage who are willing to risk following Colin Kaepernick into football martyrdom if necessary.”
Although punishment of anthem protests is on hold pending completion of negotiations with the players’ association, the big moment for Africans on the gridiron is nevertheless at hand. When the season begins, the players can boldly ignore the NFL rule and take a defiant knee; or they can meekly comply and pathetically mutter: “I’m just here to play football.” If the protests occurring during pre-season games are any indication, there may be more than a few players with courage who are willing to risk following Colin Kaepernick into football martyrdom if necessary.
Some have suggested that black team ownership is the answer to the anthem protest dilemma. Because of Magic Johnson’s sports ownership interests, and Sean Combs’ public contemplation of an NFL franchise purchase, the concept of team ownership is no longer beyond the imagination of black entrepreneurs. But even though almost 73 percent of the NFL’s players are African, none of the owners are black. In addition, this insular group of primarily white males preserves its own exclusivity and hegemony. “Who owners invite into their fraternity – and it is overwhelmingly a fraternity – is self-selective,” said Dr. Richard Lapchick, director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports.
In the face of an NFL inner circle that will likely continue to resist the anthem protests and also block black ownership, some have suggested starting an entirely new league. The idea of upstart alternative sports leagues is not unprecedented.Perhaps the best example is the American Basketball Association that provided a showcase for Julius Erving and others.
“This insular group of primarily white males preserves its own exclusivity and hegemony.”
Ideally, an alternative league would be the antithesis of the NFL and also take its cue from “Bingo Long’s Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings.” This 1976 Motown film, inspired by Negro League Baseball, is one of Black Cinema’s underappreciated gems. In addition to a stellar cast that included: James Earl Jones, Billy Dee Williams, Richard Pryor and others, the movie addressed, in an entertaining way, issues of race and class struggle.
The lead character, Barnett “Bingo” Long, is loosely based on legendary pitcher Satchel Paige and is portrayed by Billy Dee Williams. Sharing center stage is the character Leon Carter, loosely based on homerun king Josh Gibson, and portrayed by James Earl Jones. Long and Carter play on opposing teams but they share a hatred for the exploitative, oppressive and abusive working conditions imposed by the league’s team owners. While commiserating about their predicament, Long suggests Roosevelt New Deal type reforms might be the only solution. Carter disagrees:
Carter:Ain’t nothin’ gonna change until the workers seize the means of production. Ball players have got to overthrow the owners and run the teams they own selves.
Long:That a revolution.
Carter:That a democratic ideal. Be your own man. W.E.B. Du Bois said that… one of our great colored thinkers. Try reading a book sometime.
Bingo Long’s imagination is fired by Carter’s suggestion, and within a short time, the duo has lured the best players in the league away from their teams to establish a barnstorming outfit that roams the mid-west challenging any team willing to take them on. The beauty of the film is that Long and Carter do not fall easily into the role of the team owners they despise. They instead establish a workers’ cooperative of sorts where all team income is shared equally with all team personnel, including a team member who because of injury is unable to play. They effectively give him long-term disability insurance at a rate equal to normal pay.
There are times when life should imitate art. Like the movie characters, black NFL players might start their own league and structure it in a way that permits the players to “run the teams they own selves.” Its potential for success would be enhanced by the willingness of substantial numbers of players to escape the NFL plantation and join the revolution. If they leave, the NFL itself might collapse because, as Bingo Long’s abusive team owner said: “The cash customers ain’t gonna pay to see no team that done lost their best stars.”
“The beauty of the film is that Long and Carter do not fall easily into the role of the team owners they despise.”
Also to be copied is the Bingo Long approach to distribution of income. Ironically, a professional football workers’ cooperative that divided game proceeds equally among players would likely result in the players receiving considerably larger paychecks than they receive under the current system where players receive only 40 percent of ticket sales. In addition, this type of enterprise might inspire workers everywhere to struggle against the current capitalist paradigm.
The true benefit of a radical professional football league is its potential to enhance and accelerate the black community’s political development. However, a new league is ultimately a somewhat unlikely possibility. On a more practical level political growth can also result from a simple attitude adjustment. Right now protesting players and their supporters twist themselves into pretzels as they struggle to persuade critics that taking a knee is in no way intended to disrespect the flag or the military. Awkward contortions are generally the consequence of appeasement. Far more liberating and rewarding are bold declarations of truth. Unnecessarily apologetic NFL players would do well to channel the spirit of Malcolm X who never gave a thought to those who might question his patriotism when he declared:
“So I’m not standing here speaking to you as an American, or a patriot, or a flag-saluter, or a flag-waver – no, not I! I’m speaking as a victim of this American system. I don’t see any American dream; I see an American nightmare!”
For NFL players, this historical moment is pregnant with possibilities. The African World waits anxiously with hopes that it is about to witness true greatness – not acrobatic interceptions, or lightning fast dashes into the end zone – but displays of honesty and courage that have become a tradition among our most heroic black athletes.
Mark P. Fancher is an attorney who writes frequently for Black Agenda Report. He can be contacted at mfancher[at]Comcast.net.