I am not much of a football fan — an admission I recognize as akin to treason in this part of the country.
But I’ve been to enough football games to know that despite my personal lack of enthusiasm for the sport, sporting events (and football games in particular) constitute a unique and important part of contemporary American culture.
There are few other regularly-occurring activities that can achieve what football games do — uniting an audience diverse in race, gender, socioeconomic status, religious and political affiliation in support of a single, (mostly) positive cause.
It’s remarkable, really, to watch complete strangers hug and chest bump as their team scores a touchdown or stops the opposing team from getting a first down.
Even I, a sports outlander, have found myself high-fiving my neighbor after a particularly exciting play.
Sports are the great equalizer and our shared love for them has on many occasions helped us as Americans to transcend some of the ugliness and divisiveness that permeates our daily interactions.
As the Star-Telegram Editorial Board wrote this week, in no insignificant way, sports have even helped our nation cope with and recover from national tragedies.
So it has been particularly disappointing — especially during the highly partisan national moment in which we find ourselves — to watch how this season, football has been transformed from a unifying force into one that divides.
It all started in August of 2016 when San Francisco 49ers player Colin Kaepernick decided he would kneel while the national anthem was performed.
When first asked about his decision, Kaepernick indicated he was motivated by incidents of police brutality, saying, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”
While there are probably better ways to advocate for his cause and promote policy changes that might address this issue, Kaepernick was exercising his freedom to do as he pleased, as is his right.
He received both praise and criticism but he didn’t get unwavering support from his fellow players until President Donald Trump got involved, telling a crowd at a political rally that any player who disrespects the flag should be fired.
Understandably, that rubbed some players the wrong way.
Then, exercising the only skill he has perfected as president, Trump took to Twitter to further goad the NFL, its players and its leadership.
Apparently, that was the only motivation the rest of the league needed to follow Kaepernick’s lead.
Only this time, the gesture had very little to do with social justice and everything to do with returning Trump’s proverbial middle finger.
It pitted players and fans against one another. And just like that, politics invaded your Sunday afternoon.
To be fair, football and sports in general, are not wholly free of politics.
How the league disciplines or fails to discipline players accused of serious crimes, responds to research about the health and safety of its players, or handles accusations that it has colluded to keep a certain player out of the NFL, are all political decisions of one kind or another.
But the games themselves have been mostly free of those kinds of controversies, making them a respite from the partisanship that we can’t seem to avoid in all other aspects of our culture.
That kind of escapism is no more.
It isn’t any wonder, as the New York Times wrote, that “the NFL is now one of the most divisive brands in the U.S.” and it has the ratings to prove it.
On the flip side, Major League Baseball — the only sport more all American “apple pie” than football — has seen its viewership soar.
Is it any coincidence that baseball has stayed largely outside the national anthem fray? Probably not.
As I said I’m no sports fanatic, but when I enjoy game every now and again, I prefer to do it without a side of politics. It seems I’m not alone.
I’ll add that people tend to prefer having something positive to support, like say, the home baseball team of a city recovering from one of the worst natural disasters in national history. That’s a feel good way to spend your leisure time.
But watching politics play out on the football field? Thanks, but I’ll spend my Sunday afternoon otherwise occupied.