Anthony Weems and Kyle Kusz are joint authors of this post.
The stage is set for the Super Bowl LIII. On February 3rd, 2019, the New England Patriots will take on the Los Angeles Rams at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia. Luckily for the NFL, the game has just enough controversy to make it one of the most watched Super Bowls in league history. Officiating decisions in the conference championships raise questions about whether or not each team deserved to advance to the Super Bowl. Nevertheless, all is set for a seemingly riveting match between the two franchises. However, given the current polarized social and political climate and the way in which President Donald J. Trump has consistently used sports–its rhetoric, cultural values and logics, and the NFL specifically–to advance his white supremacist brand of nationalism, this particular Super Bowl represents more than meets the eye.
In this blog post, we discuss the role the NFL has played in the development of white nationalist politics over the last two decades. Specifically, we recount how the first Super Bowl meeting after 9/11 and between the Rams/Patriots in 2002 was politicized through a white-centered populist patriotism that was part of a broader ‘soft’ white cultural nationalism that emerged in Bush’s America, how they grew through the Obama presidency (i.e., Birtherism and Tea Party movement), and how they play out through the NFL in the Trump presidency. Trump strategically politicizes the NFL as a means of casting himself as a strongman, populist politician aligned with whites anxious and resentful of the changing norms of American culture and society wrought by globalization, feminism, and multiculturalism. Even further, Trump’s invocations of the NFL serve as a conduit through which he has communicated his white nationalist project. And although these socio-cultural dynamics often go unnoticed by many casual fans, political pundits, and even some academics alike, once unveiled they reveal how sport is far more than simply a game.
Revisiting SBXXXVI and George W. Bush’s America
In the 2001-2002 NFL season, the New England Patriots made a “magical” run to Super Bowl XXXVI to face the St. Louis Rams. The media’s framing of the Patriots’ saga was largely fueled by the institutional response to the horrific events of September 11, 2001 (9/11) just five months earlier. At that time, professional sport leagues, especially the NFL, were increasingly politicized, performing multiple cultural functions: returning a sense of “normalcy” in a post-9/11 America, uniting Americans and providing a sense of healing, offering massive displays of patriotism and militaristic might. Whether it was the designation of Super Bowl XXXVI as a National Security Special Event (the first sport event to be designated as such), the militarization of local police units, or the dozens of nationalistic events held before, during, and after the game, this first meeting between the Patriots/Rams offered a uniquely white, masculine, and nationalistic stage for the framing of an emergent post-9/11 American national identity. Through the overtly white-masculinized and nationalistic event of Super Bowl XXXVI, political leaders manufactured a large-scale cultural event that consolidated and normalized what it meant to be an American as a narrowly defined idea of white-masculinist militarism. The NFL itself is quite proud of their display in Super Bowl XXXVI as suggested by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell who recently reflected on the passing of George H. W. Bush:
We witnessed his integrity, humility and grace on a number of occasions, including at Super Bowl XXXVI in New Orleans where he participated in the coin toss ceremony and helped Americans begin to heal from the tragedy of September 11.
The post-9/11 brand of “superpatriotism” and the mythologizing of football as a cultural panacea became a defining feature of nationalist politics in the US under George W. Bush. In the years following Super Bowl XXXVI, white nationalism would continue mainstream as the NFL took on a more prominent role in the politics of “patriotism.”
White nationalism in a post-9/11 US
As Ducat (2004) and Faludi (2007) document, some conservative culture warriors who long complained about political correctness, feminism, and multiculturalism seized on the tragic events of 9/11 and blamed them for making the country vulnerable to attack. Promulgated through Fox News and conservative talk-radio among other cultural sites, together these laments formed a “white cultural nationalism” that attempted to reproduce whiteness as American cultural norm in the name of patriotism and love of country. Most often, this white cultural nationalism was not expressed in virtiolic terms, but through an affirmative centering and valorization of everymen like New York City police, firefighters, and first responders who came to the rescue of those who suffered as a result of the 9/11, and the armed forces more broadly via the War on Terror. Valorization of these American everymen became a way of praising a strong, tough, performance of white manliness that, according to social conservatives, was being squeezed out of American culture by feminism and political correctness. As Andrew Sullivan put it, “One of the most welcome cultural shifts after September 11 may well be the re-emergence of traditional masculinity as something no-one need apologize for” (cited from King, 2009, 13).
Unsurprisingly, US sports’ media became a prominent conduit and purveyor of the racialized, populist, masculinist tropes and logics of this ‘soft’ white nationalism. These ideas crystallized in the media spectacle made of former NFL player, Pat Tillman’s choice to forgo his lucrative career to serve in the War on Terror and then on the occasion of his untimely death in Afghanistan (under dubious circumstances). Social conservatives in particular lionized Tillman as an ideal white male hard-bodied patriot-citizen. At the 2004 NFL Draft, then commissioner, Paul Tagliabue, honored Tillman by describing him as personifying “the best values of America and the National Football League” (cited from Kusz, 2015), while NFL fans attending the draft acknowledged Tillman by temporarily putting aside their team loyalties and collectively chanting: “USA! USA! USA!” Professional football’s key role for the enunciation of white cultural nationalism in the post-9/11 era was essential for the development of Trump’s white nationalist project to ‘Make America Great Again.’
Trump, white nationalism, and the NFL
This white cultural nationalism became more pointed and virulent in reaction to the Obama presidency (i.e. Birtherism and Tea Party movement). These impulses, of course, were stoked and ennobled by Trump, first, as the most vocal proponent of Birtherism questioning Obama’s Americanness and his right to be president and later through Trump’s explicitly racist and xenophobic anti-immigrant campaign rhetoric, his repeated re-tweets of white supremacist propaganda, his racialized immigration policies and proposals, his equivocation on the hate and violence enacted in Charlottesville, Virginia by alt-right and older white supremacists in the summer of 2017, and finally his open embrace of the ‘nationalist’ label in 2018.
But even before Charlottesville, during the 2016 campaign, Trump regularly communicated the values and norms of his white nationalism through his associations with white sportsmen (Kusz, 2016). He drew on the language of sports, lionizing these men (and others like them) as ‘real athletes’ and ‘winners’ at his rallies, to outline his white nationalist aims (Oates & Kusz, in press). And not only would Trump name-drop white sports figures at rallies, but he would actively look to attack the protests of NFL players protesting police brutality and systemic oppression. Through his use of white sportsmen and black athletic protesters like Kaepernick and others as political props, Trump made clear how his nationalist project to ‘make America great again’ opens up space for unapologetic, omnipotent performances of white masculinity as it seeks to contain, silence, and dehumanize all people of color, religious minorities, and immigrants who refuse to accept and defer to the prerogative of white Christian men to decide and lead American cultural and institutional life (Kusz, 2016).
Super Bowl LIII, Trump, and Tom Brady
A key figure in this year’s Super Bowl, like so many recently, will be New England Patriots quarterback, Tom Brady. As fans ready themselves for Super Bowl LIII, they should not forget that the prophet of pliability is on record for calling President Trump a ‘good friend.’ Their friendship began when Trump invited the newly minted Super Bowl champion to be a judge at a beauty pageant following Super Bowl XXXVI in 2002. From there, they bonded on golf courses; very likely, through being one of the boys, trading in ‘locker room talk’ and fantasies of (white) male omnipotence. Recall also that it was Brady who unapologetically displayed a MAGA hat in his locker and who refused to denounce Trump’s xenophobic anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric when pressed by reporters.
Brady is idolized as a great leader not just because of his on-the-field accomplishments (of which he has many), but also because, he embodies the ideal of white male omnipotence at the heart of Trump’s white nationalism. Yet, he concurrently represents a way of being a white American that pretends one can remain neutral about Trump’s white nationalism and broader issues of racial (in)justice. It is precisely this willful ignorance of contemporary American racial realities as much as his five Super Bowl rings that enables Brady to be imagined as an ideal leader in the conservative white imagination. This lionization of Brady as a great leader evinces how white racial ignorance is enabled and white racial innocence protected through the narratives that produce and nourish NFL fandom. It’s why alt-right leader and avowed white nationalist, Richard Spencer, labeled Brady “an Aryan avatar” and claimed the Patriots’ historic comeback in SB LI as a victory “for Trump, the #AltRight, and White America” through a series of joyous Super Bowl Sunday tweets just months after Trump took office (Chabba, 2017).
Thus, as we approach the rematch between the Rams and the Patriots in Super Bowl LIII, the fallout from Trump’s government shutdown, further militarization of domestic spaces, and other constituents of the realizing dystopia, it’s important to emphasize the essential nature of white nationalist politics in and through the NFL. Super Bowl LIII is more than just an isolated sporting event that celebrates masculinity, racial politics, and capitalism. Football, post 9/11 superpatriotism, the mainstreaming of white nationalism over the last few decades, and Trump’s brand of white nationalism today are not anomalous events happening in silos. They are a more calculated and systemic push toward the continued nationalization of white masculine militarism, the political expression stemming from the contradiction of white masculine impotence. Therefore, we must continue to disentangle the sporting politic so that we may better understand the cultural tools through which white nationalism is cultivated as well as understanding and naming the white elites who seek to use these tools to further their own political program. Because only then can we be in a position to counter the corrosive culture of white nationalism.
Anthony Weems is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Division of Sport Management at Texas A&M University. His research interests revolve around the social structure of sport and sporting organizations and the roles sport plays in broader social and cultural contexts.
Kyle Kusz is an Associate Professor at the University of Rhode Island and the author of Revolt of The White Athlete (Peter Lang, 2007). His research critically examines how discourses involving sport function as political terrains where struggles take place over what ideas race, gender, class, and nation will form public common sense at various times in history.