Virgil: Woke Means Broke — the Impact of Cultural Marxism on Pro Sports 

RIVERDALE, GA - NOVEMBER 16: Colin Kaepernick looks on during the Colin Kaepernick NFL workout held at Charles R. Drew High School on November 16, 2019 in Riverdale, Georgia. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)
Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

Kaepernickism

On September 3, 2018, former football player Colin Kaepernick tweeted, “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything. #JustDoIt.”

That was the beginning, of course, of a hugely ambitious Nike ad campaign, making Kaepernick a wealthy man—probably far wealthier than if he had somehow managed to eke out another season or two in the National Football League.

Yet now, two years later, it’s obvious that Kaepernick’s version of woken sports politics—we might dub it “Kaepernickism”—has radiated across our culture and society. Moreover, as we shall see later, Kaepernickism has some interesting intellectual antecedents.  

Yet first, let’s focus on the impact that Kaepernickism has had on pro sports.  

The NFL season opened on September 10, as the Kansas City Chiefs hosted the Houston Texans. The spectators in the stands—it might not be accurate anymore to call them “fans”—booed both teams. As Jason Whitlock explained in Outkick, “The booing you heard at Arrowhead Stadium Thursday night isn’t hard to understand. Black Lives Matter is toxic and divisive.”  

In fact, TV ratings for the debut game were down more than 16 percent from the year before. And for all the games on Sunday, September 13, ratings were down as well.  

These data are worth mulling over, because, after all, at a moment when so many Americans are spending more time at home, one might expect that TV sports ratings would be rising.

We might find some clues about this ratings-tumble from another kind of rating, as measured by Gallup. On September 8, the opinion-survey firm reported that the favorability rating for pro sports had plunged over the last year. Having surveyed public sentiment on 25 industries and sectors, the company found that esteem for some industries, such as health care, has risen, while others have fallen in esteem. And yet, Gallup reported, “The biggest slide . . . has been for the sports industry, with its positive score falling 15 points—from 45% to 30%.” Notably, if one looks at the partisan “internals” of the poll, one finds that positivity among self-identified independents fell 36 percent, while among Republicans, it fell a whopping 46 percent. 

As Gallup observes oh-so-politely, it’s likely that “controversies swirling around the industry” are responsible for this “slide in popularity.” If so, then the events of the NFL’s opening week are likely to accelerate that slide.  

To know what’s been happening lately, we might consider this headline from the Associated Press: “Racial injustice themes fill empty NFL stadiums.” The September 13 article offered a wrap-up of the non-game activities that have gotten in the way of the game:   

Jason Myers kicked off to start the Seahawks’ season-opener against the Falcons, and the ball sailed through the end zone for a touchback. No one moved a step.  Instead, the players all dropped to one knee.

So what was going on? As the AP wrote of the players, “After years of pleading with the NFL to act against systemic racism, they were willing to wait another 10 seconds to make their point.” To some, including in the media, such demonstrativeness might be good political action, but to sports fans, it’s not good sports action. The AP further recounted:

Teams opening the year in empty stadiums knelt, locked arms, raised fists in protest or stayed off the field entirely for the “Star-Spangled Banner” and the Black anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing” on Sunday as the once-reluctant league brought racial injustice to the forefront on the NFL’s first full slate of games. In Atlanta, the teams wore armbands honoring civil rights leader John Lewis and staged the most striking of the day’s gestures: They barely flinched as the opening kickoff landed beyond the end line, took a knee, and remained there for about 10 seconds before trotting off the field to resume the game.

In the words of Falcons running back Todd Gurley, “It’s a start . . . You don’t want to make it a one-time thing.” In other words, we should expect more of this politicization this Sunday, and the Sunday after, and on and on. 

Meanwhile, the second week of the NFL got less attention–lots of other news crowding it out, and pro football does, indeed, seem less significant these days–but as Deadline recorded on September 21, the New York Jets, Minnesota Vikings, Green Bay Packers, Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins all were out of sight during the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner, while other teams mixed up variations of standing, kneeing, and fist-flying.  And yes, TV ratings were down again.

Interestingly, one of the TV networks—the outfits that provide pro sports with most of their revenues—is telling its people to dial things back, lest viewers be alienated. As Forbes caught back on September 8, CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus said of his sportscasters, “They’re not going to interject their opinion or their philosophy. They’re there to cover the game.”

The fear, of course, is simple: Woke Is Broke. That is, ordinary Americans, especially on the center-right–which is where most sports fans, as well as most Americans, are to be found–won’t pay their hard-earned money to be criticized, even insulted, by the players.

Yet as we know, the players are perfectly capable of making their own news, with or without CBS; indeed, they have plenty of media wokesters, such as those at ESPN, who will happily help them carry their message.   

Moreover, a new woke ideology seems to be inspiring the players. That ideologizing is seen, for example, in a new book from sportswriter Robert Scoop Jackson, The Game Is Not a Game: The Power, Protest, and Politics of American Sports. In his introduction, Jackson writes, in all caps, “THIS IS A BOOK ABOUT POWER.” That is, ideological, cultural, and political power—the actual playing of games seems secondary.  

As Jackson writes, “Sports [are] transforming into something much more than a game,” while “athletes [are] subscribing to be much more than just athletes.” 

So if athletes are more than just athletes, what are they? Are they striving to be cultural avatars? Are they striving to become political leaders? One answer comes from Politico, which took note of the transformation of the National Basketball Association into a “social justice coalition,” full of high hopes for dunking Trump this November: 

The NBA throwing its weight behind voting access could have a huge impact on this fall’s elections—and, therefore, the near-future not only of criminal justice reform, but of any number of longtime progressive priorities.

As we can see, the ball players no longer seem to work for the team owners; if anything, the power relationship seems to be the other way around—now the owners yield to the players. We might call this power-shifting ideology Kaepernickism. To be sure, the actual Colin Kaepernick isn’t playing for the NFL anymore, and yet from a well-funded corporate skybox, he still seems to be calling the plays. 

Indeed, in the power-shifting of Kaepernickism, we see a culmination of the long-standing leftist strategy for achieving profound cultural change—to be followed, perhaps, by profound political change. And so if the current business model of pro sports falls apart in the process, well, maybe, in the minds of revolutionaries, that’s a small price to play. 

The Roots of Kaepernickism 

Nearly a century ago, the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci argued that ordinary workers—the revolutionary proletariat of Karl Marx’s theorizing—were, in fact, unlikely to embrace a communist revolution. Gramsci concluded that the working class was simply too conservative and patriotic ever to become Marxists, singing “The Internationale.”   

From Gramsci’s point of view, that was the bad news. And yet the good news, he continued, was that a portion of the bourgeois elite could be converted to communism, if only enough propaganda could be generated by the schools, newspapers, and other idea-pushing institutions. Gramsci called this process “Cultural Hegemony,” although today it’s commonly called Cultural Marxism.  

Many among the chattering classes took Gramsci’s advice to heart, and so Cultural Marxism began to flower. Indeed, later, in the 1960s, another communist, Rudi Dutschke, refined Gramsci’s point by adding the phrase der lange Marsch durch die Institutionen, or, “The Long March Through the Institutions.” That is, Cultural Marxists would march in peacefully and take over the universities, the media, and other meme-generating entities.   So now today, as we survey our institutions, it’s easy to see that they’ve been marched through—and that’s the impact of the Gramscian-Dutschkean strategy.  

Yet quite possibly, neither of these influential leftist strategists foresaw that Cultural Marxism would prove so powerful in pro sports. After all, pro players are hardly suffering at the hands of capitalism; the minimum salary for a player in the NFL is $510,000 a year, and for the NBA it’s $893,310. And star players, of course, make in the millions, even tens of millions. 

Such incomes are obviously not the pittance going to a downtrodden and immiserated proletariat. Moreover, we don’t hear much from the players about raising income tax rates or otherwise redistributing the wealth. What we get from them, instead, is fervent agitating and tweeting about symbolic social justice—and so far, at least, the owners are paying for that.  

The question, of course, is whether or not these owners will continue to pay for all this social-justice-warrior-ing, since it seems clear that it antagonizes the fans—the folks who pay the bills and provide the profits. Or should we say, in many cases, formerly paid the bills and formerly provided the profits.   

Yes, the owners are rich, and they’ll never be poor, and yet one reason they’ll never be poor is because they know how to cut their losses. And if pro sports turns into a money-loser, then it’s a cinch the owners will soon be sharing the pain with the players. And so Kaepernickism might yet lead to the diminishment, maybe even the ruination, of pro sports. 

As we have seen: Woke is Broke. 

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