Something strange is happening, but i’m unclear, as yet, what momentum it will build: as part of #WorkingOutLoud, i try to observe, analyse, and share the earliest stage reflections, so please take it in that spirit (and not an overtly political one) as i think about the NFL, the President, Social Justice, and the fickle power of symbols.
First <strong>a warning: there is some mild swearing in some quotes in the text, so skip points 16-20 if you don’t want to see that, and, secondly, i am not discussing a political view here, although the subject matter is political. Rather, it’s a commentary on society. I’ll start with a list:
- ONE – Last year, an NFL player, named Colin Kaepernick, chose to kneel, instead of standing with his hand on his heart, for the National Anthem.
- TWO – His stated reason was this: “I’m] not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour”.
- THREE – There was an uproar, both of support, and opposition, but it remained one story in a noisy world.
- FOUR – At the start of this season, Kaepernick became a ‘free agent’, no team has signed him, and there is suspicion that he has been blacklisted.
- FIVE – In wades the President: and at this point, we need to stop and think about power.
I wrote recently about types of power: individual, hierarchical, and networked (reputation based authority). Typically, when you reach the top, you have a lot of hierarchical power, although political systems, at least in liberal western democracies, tend to have a lot of checks and balances in place to ensure that you don’t have too much unhindered power. So we typically see a shift: when you are in opposition, seeking the position in the hierarchy, you deploy OPPOSITIONAL power: this is the type of power where you disagree with what is being said, and present broad policies on what you would do differently. But if you leave them sufficiently broad, you can gain a lot of support, without ever being specific.
The catch comes when you gain power and need to get things done: in all but the heaviest of landslides, you typically move to CONSENSUS power, even if unwillingly. Once you have power, you need to govern. To my observation, Trump has not done this. There may be two things at play here: firstly, a recognition that to move to consensus power may alienate a power base that is almost defined by opposition to the current hierarchy, and, secondly, because we may be seeing a new type of political system at play, so the old rules are redundant, or being rewritten. I’m unclear which and, i should stress, i am commenting on the power aspects of this, not positing a political view.
Indeed, one part of the whole system i find fascinating is less what Trump has done to gain power, but rather the seeming inability of the system around him to adapt. We hear outrage, denial, and hope, but no real change. That’s partly what makes me think we may be seeing the overturn of an entire system, even if the system does not realise it yet. Indeed, we may be seeing simply the first wave of change. What do i mean by that?
The Social Age sees some key transformative effects: collectivism at scale, outside of any formal system, and democratised storytelling at volume. These new stories, and modes of power, are very fluid and fast, and they sit in opposition to older systems that tend to be codified and slow. So the types of forces that catapult a new song to number one in the download charts are faster, and more fickle, than that which sweeps a president to power, and i suspect the socially moderated system that plays out so widely in the media will directly lead to an evolution of our political systems. For the better, or for the worse, i am not yet clear.
So back to the matter at hand: in a speech to his core base of supporters, Trump referred to Kaepernick, and the small number of others who had followed his lead, and said that they should be fired for their lack of respect for the military and the country. And this may have been a step too far:
- SIX – Kaepernick took an iconic stand, reminiscent of the two athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists in the ‘black power’ salute on the Olympic podium in 1968. Smith and Carlos too were ostracised and never competed again.
- SEVEN – BUT… it’s not 1968 any more Dorothy.
- EIGHT – Oppositional power is fickle and interesting: your attempts to subvert it may reinforce it.
- NINE – The oppositional force from a President not universally loved, appeared to trigger a strong counter force, possibly because it crossed a number of boundaries: freedom of expression, a popular #BlackLivesMatter narrative, and the tribal forces of sport.
- TEN – The intent to prevent protest triggered widespread protest: last weekend, at games around the world, players knelt. Not all of them, and not with universal support, but with a new momentum.
Let me pause again, because now things get really interesting: Trump vs some African American NFL players is, in itself, a story, but a third narrative emerges, that is potentially the most interesting.
- ELEVEN – A larger number of players remain standing, and link arms: so they protest, but don’t adhere to the stated ‘disrespectful’ behaviour. But, crucially, they are united in opposition.
TWELVE – Large numbers of physically dominant athletes make good Twitter fodder
THIRTEEN – The only muslim NFL owner joins his athletes on the field: a may who donated 700k dollars to the Trump campaign. He is a slight, small man, it’s a compelling image.
FOURTEEN – Trump claims that standing and protesting is ok, but the narrative is loose: i’m unclear who will own it. I suspect that kneeling and standing with arms linked are the compelling oppositional narrative, and one that cannot be broken, certainly not by an old white billionaire.
FIFTEEN – Trump tries a counter narrative that this is not about race relations, but it lands as it always does when someone says “i’m not racist, but…”
I talked about this recently in the piece on ‘nations’, referencing the socially moderated meaning imbued anew onto civil war statues, another narrative playing out in this space, and a compelling one. Trump may be right, that his intent was not to talk about race relations (his intent was to reinforce his own oppositional narrative of draining the swamp, or some such), but the trouble with stories is that they have a life of their own. Race relations may be more compelling as a story. And then, a final part:
- SIXTEEN – Sports is about as tribal an activity as you can get. The players are socially moderated heroes, and, unlike most politicians, deploy precisely the same socially moderated power as Trump.
- SEVENTEEN – Sports is inherently a spectator sport, politics is not
- EIGHTEEN – Trump calls the players ‘sons of bitches’, and they respond, not with insults, but talking eloquently about their mothers.
- NINETEEN – One of the mothers tweets ‘well i guess that makes me a proud bitch’. Not even the president can insult a mother, a lesson that should have been learnt through a previous mistake he made in this space.
- TWENTY – The whole narrative plays out in episodes: what will happen next week. I suspect that this will give it tempo.
So what do we see? I fear that we may see escalation: i think that soon we will see confrontation in the stands. We will see widespread instances of supporters kneeling. We will see well publicised instances of violence, when a fight breaks out. I fear that someone will be killed in a protest. But i don’t think we will see widespread opposition to the core message: i don’t think players will be banned from protesting, because that would trigger a revolution. There are two stories playing out: one about inequality, and one about power. And however you feel about power, it’s socially risky to speak out about inequality, or at least, it is at a ball game. If you’re in the KKK, you can, but that’s not where football is played.
Ultimately, this may be a battle of imagery, but i think the tempo of weekly games may escalate it. At the very least, it’s the most fascinating example of new types of power, battling out against the backdrop of the new ecosystem of the Social Age.