It’s a pretty common thing for people to watch sports when they get bored. Or to go outside and play sports when they get bored. Or to maybe read and write about sports. What isn’t quite as common is someone getting bored and randomly writing about sports when he doesn’t have the faintest clue of anything that happens in the sports world. Maybe you’re wondering what I’m talking about. Well, what happened was that upon the recent NFL deflated football scandal, some clueless intellectual in search of a way to spin a racial angle into the whole sad episode decided to make Tom Brady’s suspension the point of reference for a rant against white privilege. Not as a guy who hasn’t been the recipient of it, but as a person whose punishment for maybe deflating a few footballs has received it.
Now, I’m not trying to deny that white privilege exists. It does, and even though I’ve lost out on certain options in my lifetime because of my deformed arm and my atheism, I’m not trying to argue that I’ve never been the recipient of white privilege. If you’re a white American male, you have access to certain luxuries and opportunities which you will probably never be aware of, and as a white American male, I’ll never know what it’s like to be followed through a department store for no reason or pulled over for driving through a good neighborhood. I’m not even trying to argue that Tom Brady has never received white privilege. He came from a fairly well-off family in a California suburb, after all, and if anything, he’s probably received more of it than I ever will. But trying to convince a knowledgeable sports fan that Tom Brady’s white privilege is suddenly symbolized through a four-game suspension for tampering with footballs – or, in fact, not even tampering with footballs, but simply on the suspicion of ball-tampering because he refused to turn in some evidence in the league’s investigation – requires total, abject ignorance of context and a willingness to take everything about what happened at face value. And even if you’re capable of doing that, it requires stretching to the breaking point. Anyone who knows anything more than that about all matters NFL-related knows this suspension-as-privilege bullshit is incapable of holding cement, let alone water.
There is a surprising number of observers knowledgeable about the NFL who have been able to recognize Brady’s suspension for what it really is: Another stunt punishment meted down from Roger Goodell calculated to preserve his league’s bleeding image which is, if anything, a little heavy-handed. I’m not endorsing cheating and I hate Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, and the New England Patriots, but they just got their skulls cracked for a form of cheating so old that sports leagues are picking and choosing cases of it to come down on. Ball-tampering is not a highly-enforced rule. Just during November, the Minnesota Vikings and Carolina Panthers were both caught placing balls next to heaters during a game. When the NFL saw it during the broadcast, it basically wagged its finger. In 2012, the San Diego Chargers tried coating their towels in a sticky substance which would have made the ball easier to handle, and the incident was basically laughed off. Jerry Rice, the legendary wideout – who is black – confessed to using stickum during games just a couple of days before the deflation scandal broke, and no one removed him from the league’s all-time team. If you want to bring other sports into it, Gaylord Perry had to chutzpah to name his damned autobiography after the illegal pitch he spent his career using. In basketball, the New York Knicks dynasty of the early 70’s is praised for their smart passing, but not the underinflated balls which enabled their particular brand of small ball. In the 80’s, the Los Angeles Lakers’ legendary Showtime dynasty overinflated their balls to create a more lively and unpredictable ball which was suited to their up-tempo offense – and when the Chicago Bulls defeated the Lakers to win their first Championship, coach Phil Jackson had them carrying paper clips in their shorts to stick in the valve to deflate the ball whenever the refs weren’t looking!
Here’s a little context about Brady’s white privilege for the intelligentsia to lap up: Ray Rice, black, beat up his wife in an elevator and was suspended for two games. When public court demanded a stiffer punishment, Roger Goodell first tried hand-waving the case on account of there being a lack of evidence. He didn’t do much of anything about it until TMZ released the video of the actual assault and threw Goodell’s back against the wall. Adrian Peterson, also black, beat his kid and the NFL did jack shit – and the Vikings suspended him for a single game. Some 70 players were arrested in the last season and no one breathed a word. Brady, who didn’t do anything that endangered the welfare of another human, was suspended for more games than any of them, and his team was docked draft picks and fined a million dollars – which, by the way, is twice the stated maximum NFL fine. The deflation scandal was exactly the kind of thing Goodell was hoping and praying for – a nice distraction which the Commissioner could use to reassert his authority, come off like a zero-tolerance good guy, and use to make people forget about the year the NFL just had. You don’t get to pull the white privilege card in a case that would have gone away had the NFL handled it the way it normally handles ball-tampering cases; slap the offending team with a $25,000 fine immediately after the game, tell them not to do it again, and kick back while everyone forgets it.
This attempt to paint Brady as the new poster boy of white privilege is resulting in the most incredible avalanche of intellectual dishonesty I’ve ever seen from critical theorists. This isn’t social criticism. It’s crying for attention. It seems everyone doing it is aware of that on some level. In an attempt to paint Brady as some great villain who gets away with everything, some writers – like Dan O’Sullivan of Vice Sports – are even diving into his past and cherry-picking facts. O’Sullivan’s piece is a real howler for how much he either didn’t know or willingly omitted to push his narrative. He mentions, for example, that Brady had a mediocre high school career which resulted in a full scholarship from the University of Michigan anyway. Now, this may or may not be true, but what I know is that even if he was a bad athlete in high school, “mediocre” is a strictly relative term. Brady attended Junipero Serra High School, a nationally famous athlete factory which also produced Jim Fregosi, Lynn Swann, and Barry Bonds, and he played baseball and basketball as well as football there. Sucking at a place like Serra wouldn’t be the same as sucking at, say, Seneca Vocational. O’Sullivan says Brady was a bad college quarterback, which simply isn’t true. Brady once owned the single-season record for completions at Michigan. O’Sullivan does mention that Brady was inserted as the fourth-string quarterback after getting drafted, and that it was an unusual move. He’s half-right. Brady WAS originally the fourth-string guy. That’s kind of the par for a sixth round draft pick, especially when the team’s main guy is cannon-armed Drew Bledsoe, a multiple-time all-star with borderline Hall of Fame credentials. Brady worked his way up to second string, then was automatically given the starter job when Bledsoe was sidelined with a serious injury.
I’ve seen the idea raised that if it was Marshawn Lynch in Brady’s position, he would have been given a much worse punishment. And yeah, that’s true. But the problem with that narrative is that Brady has always been the pitch-perfect All-American Golden Boy. He’s never been in trouble or said anything controversial. Most importantly in the league’s eyes, he’s never done anything to endanger the bottom line or the clean, family image. Lynch has at least one illegal weapons charge under his belt, another hit and run charge, and was caught driving drunk during his time in Buffalo. Since his trade to Seattle, he appears to have mostly cleaned up his criminal side, but he also found a way to subvert the NFL’s ridiculous laws about media availability without actually breaking them. He shows up, uses subtle ways to show his contempt for the league for making him show up, never answers any questions, and leaves. Journalists are frustrated by him and several have called for the league to just fine him and suspend him anyway. The NFL already suspended him once for the weapons charge. That ran for three games. The fact that he hasn’t been suspended again either shows the league is being uncharacteristically lenient with him, or that he has a legal team comprised of wizards, Jedi, and Time Lords. I promise you Roger Goodell is looking for a reason to suspend him again, for the same reason he just suspended Brady – endangering the bottom line and the image. I also promise that if Lynch cheats and gives Goodell that reason, the ensuing suspension won’t have anything to do with cheating, and anyone who argues otherwise is a fucking idiot.
There are two reasons why using Tom Brady to symbolize white privilege is killing me. The first is because so many valid instances of white privilege are all over sports. Hell, if it was so imperative to attack the Patriots specifically, one needs to look no further than at Tom Brady’s favorite and most effective target, the adolescent-minded frat megadouchebro Rob Gronkowski. The picture the media paints of Gronk is appalling. Gronk is white, and he’s been spending most of his time engaging in the same vein of off-field hijinks this same media repeatedly slammed Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens for. Yet, rather than hover over him and call him an embarrassment to whatever code it’s peddling this week, the media continues to glorify Gronk as a lovable galoot having fun in the prime of his youth. And speaking of codes, there’s also enough material in baseball’s stodgy and suspiciously pale Code to attack the entire baseball establishment – players, owners, representatives, and even fans – for years. The players sometimes attack each other over antiquated ideas of respect which come from an idealistic past which was never real; or even if it was, would be rooted in a time period in which baseball was whites-only. The 7.8 percent of black ballplayers are stuck adhering to traditionalist values of the white majority, and any sign of personality or excitement gets them drilled on their next at-bat. Chris Rock just released an impressive seven-minute rant on the whole subject. For something that isn’t quite so far out of the intellectual comfort zone, attacks against team owners who demand to build new stadiums in places that would drive minority populations out of their homes hits a trifecta: It’s a civic issue, a race issue, and a sports issue. The intelligentsia knows race and infrastructure issues well, and sticking to them when attacking sports stadiums makes white privilege in sports a sort of default target.
The other reason is because there’s a veiled insult in it. Sports are a major social institution. The way sports influence and are influenced by society are subjects sociologists and psychologists study. There is even a full-fledged organization, The North American Society for the Sociology of Sport, which was created to observe the impact of sports on humanity. Murray State University Professor Daniel Wann basically created his entire name and reputation studying the psychology and sociology of sports, and dedicating multiple books to the subject. Yet, the average intellectual can’t seem to shed the mindset that sports are strictly a neanderthal endeavor. This is a crowd that is not only ignorant about all things related to sports, but thunderously trumpets that very ignorance from the mountaintops, making no effort to conceal its contempt or condescension. Now they’re trying to wedge themselves into the national conversation about this deflation scandal by trying to inject it with a racial angle that doesn’t exist, and they’ve apparently chosen the method “use a national scandal we’ve ignored but which the entire sports-following world could school us in and apply it to a white athlete we’ve heard of.” It’s the same form of ignorant punditry Fox News runs on.
I love sports, and I’m capable of expending many happy hours keeping up with them the same way I keep up with my bicycling, exercises, video games, writing, and various other interests. Sports mean a lot to me because they’re something that brings out my better qualities. I credit baseball’s New York Yankees in part for rescuing me from social oblivion. Sports helped inspire me to try for certification in physical therapy, and hopefully exercise science in a further future. I’ve been following hockey’s Buffalo Sabres for 30 years. I once wrote a blog dedicated to baseball literature – which I’m now looking to revive – that professional authors have noticed and sent me compliments for. One of my final projects for my sociology class this last semester was on the sociology of sports fandom. I put a ton of time and effort into learning about sports and their quirks and intricacies to make sure I have the most accurate angles possible on everything I say regarding them. The insult here is that I can pick up the very same grasp on the necessary nuance and context with no effort whatsoever. I can stick my head in the ground whenever the subject comes up, pull it out when I hear a muffled word from a 22nd-hand source, and already know everything about the situation that I need to in order to make an accurate sociological assessment of it.
The lure of sports is so strong that some experts have even likened them to religion, and favored teams become indistinguishable from the “totems” that legendary sociologist Emile Durkheim described when he referred to religion as a cultural symbol. Intellectuals seem to have trouble grasping that, and train themselves to not take sports seriously. And so when some of them do try to come out and treat sports in a serious context, we get glorified trolling like talk about how Tom Brady’s color is the only thing preventing the NFL from taking the Patriots’ latest title away. (It might interest an intellectual to know that, while they’re beating up Brady, Patriots owner Robert Kraft is trying to pull some actual privilege: He’s demanding an apology from Roger Goodell and the overturn of the suspension. In the meantime, Brady himself is making an appeal to the commissioner. If he gets his suspension reduced, THEN you can play the white privilege card.) I’m sick of seeing a legitimate social institution that I spend my free time studying get reduced to sound bites by proud ignoramuses. If the average intellectual wants to throw their social commentary into sports, they need to either start putting some time into learning about them or just back the hell off.