Eduardo Galeano Football and how American Football has shattered the American Dream for young black hopefuls

Fleas dream of buying themselves a dog, and nobodies dream of escaping poverty:

that, one magical day, good luck will suddenly rain down on them – will rain down in buckets.

But good luck doesn’tt rain down, yesterday, today, tomorrow or ever. Good luck doesn’tt even fall in a fine drizzle, no matter how hard the nobodies summon it, even if their left hand is tickling, or if they begin the new day on their right foot, or start the new year with a change of brooms.

The nobodies: nobodys children, owners of nothing. The nobodies: the no-ones, the nobodied, running like rabbits, dying through life, screwed every which way.

Who are not, but could be.

Who dont speak languages, but dialects.

Who dont have religions, but superstitions.

Who dont create art, but handicrafts.

Who dont have culture, but folklore.

Who are not human beings, but human resources.

Who do not have faces, but arms.

Who do not have names, but numbers.

Who do not appear in the history of the world, but in the crime reports of the local paper.

The nobodies, who are not worth the bullet that kills them

 

  I have decided to do a blog and a podcast, so many people at work have commented on how I should do one. Personally, i don’t think I’m that interesting but here goes. My initial issue was, i am far too lazy to do such a thing regularly. Then the creeping self-doubt and fear entered the fray; who would really want to listen to me?

What topics should i cover?

 Will my podcasts be shot down by judgmental listeners scanning for mistakes or sweeping statements that I may make?

But then if this did happen it would mean that i would have listeners, which is the point of these things after all, is it not?

So here i am, a would-be blogger/podcaster ready to throw my tuppence worth to the world.

   My next question was, what should I call my blog?

I knew I wanted to do a political rant blog and podcast, so my title had to link it to politics. An overtly political name is a bit shit, I wanted something more nuanced. It’s like when someone asks you if you could have one tattoo that represents you what would it be? Alternatively if you had to have one song lyric tattooed on you what would it be? It’s a difficult question even for those who take it seriously. 

How do you see yourself (and how do others see you)? Do you see family as important; do you have your kids’ names or pictures of deceased parents, smiling, tattooed on your back which invariably ends up making the indelible memory of your mother look more like a twisted version of Al Jolson doing Mammy?  

Is politics important, do you get a picture of Marx or Lenin, or god forbid Thatcher?

Do you get a portrait of ‘king’ Kenny Dalgleish or the Everton badge?

(I wouldn’t have a football tattoo as it’s not important to me but if I was forced to it would be Neville Southall, legendary Everton goalkeeper and twitter warrior)

I’ve had this same dilemma, hence the reason why I have no tattoos. Armed with the knowledge that this choice mattered, as it was indelible, I thought deeply.

 

 In the end, I looked at what most inspired me from music and literature. As well as what, of those things, were political and encapsulated my rage at the current political climate. I didn’t have to think long, as what I chose captivated me from the moment I first read it. I instantly got its meaning and it evoked an emotion in me, a “HELL YES!”

 

The title I chose was ‘The Nobodies’ which is taken from a poem of the same name by Latin American writer Eduardo Galeano.

Each line of the poem speaks to me about the current state of our world, about inequality, racism, cultural snobbery, corruption and the exploitation of the poor by the elites. At its core it is a cutting indictment of inequality in our world today. The next couple of blogs will explore the poem in more detail, for now I will focus on the author, Eduardo Galeano and his passion, football before drawing some parallels with my passion, American Football.

Born in 1940 in Montevideo, Uruguay, Eduardo Galeano was a journalist and writer whose work encompassed: Football, journalism, political essays and fiction, not to mention his trilogy of Memoirs. He was a fierce proponent of social justice, it is his political writings which his 1989 poem Los Nadies (The Nobodies) comes from, more of which in the next blog.

 Galeano is most famous for his love and writings on football. He was captivated by the grace and skill of the players, describing himself as a “beggar for good football”.  His 1995 El Futbal a Sol y Sombra (Football in Sun and Shadow) was the ultimate poetic homage to the sport that he loved. Tracing a chronological history of the game from a ball of hemp in 3000BC China through to one of the unknown greats such as the virtually unknown Arthur Friedenreich, a Brazilian of mixed race, who played in the Brazilian first division for 26 years (it was amateur at the time) and scored more goals in his career than any other player, including the great Pele.

He also marvels at great talents such as Franz Beckenbauer and Diego Maradona, true gods of their art. Galeano linked football events with great moments of history such as Hitler and Mussolini’s rise to power and the 1934 world cup and the use of fascist salutes to cheer their teams victories calling it “an elaborate propaganda operation”.

 He also marvels at the development of the Brazilian game, where a new style of expertise developed in the favela’s (slums built on steep slopes the periphery of Brazilian cities). Using rudimentary objects for a ball, playing on tiny pitches wherever space could be found. Galeano languished in the moment when this skill was unleashed on the staid dreariness of the European football establishment.

Galeano wrote that Football was “tropicalized in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo by the poor who enriched it while they appropriated it. No longer the possession of the few comfortable youths who played by copying, this foreign sport became Brazilian, fertilised by the creative energies of the people discovering it.”

Remind anyone of the Gracie brothers and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu?

  Galeano saw the dark side of the game he loved. He saw the corruption of FIFA and its domination by large corporations who splashed their logos over every facet of the game, and the TV companies who have the power to dictate when games are played.

 This is no longer a sport, it’s a business where the fans are seen as consumers rather than passionate aficionados. Warriors who would follow their teams through the fields of Elysium into the depths of Hades itself if it meant reveling in the moment of victory for their chosen tribe.

 

Lenora Todaro, writing in the Atlantic wrote of Galeano’s view of football, “Soccer, in Galeanos vision of it, isnt just a war between teams or countries: Its also a war between humanity and technocracy. He called himself a beggar for good soccer” and in later years found himself frustrated by the hyperprofessionalization of the sport, which negates joy, kills fantasy, and outlaws daring.””

 Galeano was right. Football is about profit, joy and passion are crude yet useful instruments of monetisation, further extracting any remaining wealth that the poor and working classes may still possess. Football feeds on their emotions; creates new needs: the latest kit, a season ticket, a sports TV subscription.

 It’s interesting that the individuals (the prawn sandwich brigade) who gain the most from this business don’t even have to pay the price of entry into a stadium. Corporate hospitality takes care of this. Yes, it is paid for but not by individuals, it is paid for by marketing budgets which are subsequently factored into the price of the product that these companies sell.

 So, when Carling sponsored the Premier League, not only did your working man have to pay for his ticket to the game he also paid again when he reached the pub after the game for his pint of Carling with his coreligionists. Yet it is also these same people, like the ones in the favelas, who constantly give to football to help develop the game.

 Not only do the poor contribute financially they also offer up their bodies and skills that drive the excitement and popularity of the sport.

  But this goes even deeper still. Galeano wrote of the backlash against this corporatisation of football when the people of Brazil held protests against the costs of building stadia for the 2014 Word Cup instead of using the money for infrastructure, better education or healthcare for the people of Brazil. He produced a statement supporting the protests saying that the people of Brazil have decided not to allow their sport to be used any more as an excuse for humiliating the many and enriching the few.”

 This is a cry which echoes around the footballing world, it speaks of a deity that has been embezzled from its guardians, the fan, and then used against them as a way to exploit their religious fervour by steadily bleeding them of their resources (both wealth and time).

 Let’s look, for example, at Bury in the English league.

 The team was kicked out of the league in 2019 for not being able to pay £1.6 million in debts. The following year it narrowly missed going into liquidation for the sake of £5million in debts. On the surface, this is a large amount of money for a team to be in debt for. However, if you consider that Bury are part of English football which, according the BBC, the top 92 teams generated £4.8 billion in revenue in 2017/18 then we have a serious issue of incontinence in the world of football trickle-down economics.

It is absurd that individual players can receive £100,000 per week yet a club that has been in existence for 135 years, can disappear for the cost of the yearly salary of one player in the Premier League.

Religions die when people stop believing in them.

Bury still has its faithful so why should something as crude as money be the downfall of one small sect of the religion of football? Especially when we consider how much money is available to that religion.

In contrasting the beauty of the game with its darker side, Galeano taps into my own conflict of conscience.

 I’m also passionate about football, however whereas Galeano was captivated by the deft ball control skills of the head and foot from his gods, I’m drawn by the throwing and catching, the raw expressions of violence that takes place on the gridiron of the American Football field, the temples of my own gods.

The National Football League (NFL) is a uniquely American sport. If we were to look for an example of oligarchy in sport the NFL would be it. The league consists of 32 teams. Each team, with the exception of Green Bay, has an owner who is invariably a millionaire or richer and may run the club as they wish.

 Green bay is owned by the people of Green Bay and as such has a board of directors and stockholders. The owners of the other 31 teams have carte blanche to do as they wish. Their only higher power is the NFL itself, which is run as a nonprofit and as such pays no tax, but still has to bow to the owner’s collective decisions. 

 American sports as a religion exists in a strange cosmos where the gods of the sport are mere toys to admire and to be played with. Jesus removed the money men from the temple, in the NFL the money men move the temple. It is here where the power of American sports sits.

 These men are not mere gods, they are titans unbothered by the Olympian gods who supposedly overthrew them.

 The owners of each team are not constricted by mere geography nor by any moral duty to their fellow man or worshiper. In fact, the worshiper is a mere irritant, one more revenue stream to fill the ambrosial coffers.

It’s not like the UK where any attempt to move a team like Manchester United to Bournemouth would be seen as a legitimate move because the city of Manchester refused to fund their new stadium. This would be met with such an outcry that would awaken the Busby Babes from their graves.  

In the NFL, not only is this possible, it happens often enough for it not to be a massive story. If we look at one of the most famous teams in the NFL, the Oakland Raiders. The team is about to move to its third home city since its inception in 1960; starting out as the Oakland Raiders then moving to Los Angeles in 1982 to become the LA Raiders before moving back to Oakland in 1994. The team is about to start the 2020-2021 season as the Las Vegas Raiders after the franchise moves to Nevada.

 On the surface this looks like a total disregard for their fan base who have supported the team throughout their time at each of the venues. It is, but it is also so much more than that.

 As mentioned, there is much more to this, and other NFL moves, than just the move to another city. NFL teams are often in dispute with their host city, and even hold them to ransom, over new stadium facilities. Many NFL owners expect host cities to pay for and build new state of the art stadiums for their teams to play in. Many teams threaten to, and in many cases do actually, move to another city.

In the case of the Raiders, owner Al Davis threatened to move the franchise from Oakland if the stadium wasn’t improved and the city didn’t build additional luxury boxes. Their move from LA back to Oakland, again had the issue of stadiums and to whether the city would pay for stadium upgrades. In 1994 it was the city of Oakland who paid the costs of the move back and the upgrades to the stadium with a very attractive rent on the stadium to boot using public money. Just like the Oakland return, the city of Las Vegas pledged $750 million in public funds as a subsidy to build the new stadium. This is not an isolated incident, with other teams like the Cleveland Browns, Indianapolis Colts and The New Orleans Saints, to name three, all benefiting from a stadium funded in the main by public funds.

 Remember earlier on when i was talking about the working man paying twice for the price of watching his football while the corporate seats were free to the viewers (those who could actually afford to pay the price of admission)?

Well, with some NFL stadiums we can add a third revenue stream for the millionaire owners, city taxes. Money that should be used for infrastructure, schools, social projects, homelessness and poverty reduction. Not only do these cities have to fund the cost of the infrastructure that allows the fans to arrive at the games on time and unflustered they have also funded the stadiums.

And who gains from this?

 The Titans at the top of the NFL, the owners and as for the faithful followers; so long losers.

 According to Rick Paulas in the Atlantic, the Raiders return cost Oakland $350 million. If we add to this that the Raiders franchise was worth $351 million in 2001, it is now worth a staggering $2.3 billion. The public has seen none of this return on their investment it should be remembered. Paulas goes on to highlight the fact that Oakland has some of the worst kept roads in the US and “Oakland Unified School District is cutting up to 340 jobs for the 2019–20 school year, and the city has to rely on outside spending to cover the mostly inadequate shelter it provides its homeless population.” The city can’t afford its obligation to its residents if they fall on hard times or its children, but it can help to fund a multi-millionaires pet project. This is larceny with blackmail, plain and simple.

 There is the argument that these stadiums and teams bring jobs to the economy. There is no doubt that during the build they do. But these jobs are not sustainable as the stadium would take around a year or so to build, then what? The money generated from game day itself is also limited. The NFL regular season runs from September to December/January, four months in total. Those four months the team will send half of their time away from the ground which means that each year, of the 16 games that they will play, only eight of them will be in the stadium. Where is the value for money? Many deals with city’s are so weighted in favour of the owners that the franchise even receives money from other events like concerts held in the stadium.

 

I ask again where is the value for money to the taxpayer?  

The answer is…

The public get very little value for money from an NFL franchise that its city has invested in. There is one point of semantics that I’ve mentioned but deliberately not explained. The use of the term ‘franchise’ to describe a team. This is the ultimate betrayal of the fact that the sport has become a business.

 Franchises are usually reserved for McDonalds and Pizza Hut as a way of expanding a business model.

In the NFL case each team is a franchise and the owners get access to an exclusive club. One where they get to choose who else can join. They have bought into this club and like the kid with the rich parents, who had the best computer system, they will let you into their home once a week to watch them play with their new computer game. After all they are the Titans of the game. If they choose, they can move their computer system anywhere in the country (so long as their fellow owners agree) thus taking away your viewing rights. They can also take away the viewing rights of fans if they choose not to pay the price of entry. When the Raiders were in LA they often had TV blackouts of their games due to the low turnout to the stadium.

This isn’t a religion that you can be an armchair supporter of. The price of adherence to this religion is high and they can take your grace away whenever they choose.  

If we take the players themselves, there are 1696 at any one time during the season. The route to becoming a god of the gridiron is a long and difficult one. Players are expected to earn their place in the hallowed halls of the NFL by allowing their bodies to be battered, and in many cases broken, for little recompense. The top 25 US college football programs earn, on average, $2.7 billion in revenues per year, of which $1.5 billion was profit.

Businesses rely, as Marx would say, on the means of production in order to make their product or provide their service. In College football that service is provided by the players. Without the player there would be no football. Yet these players, the means of producing football, are not remunerated for their service. This surely, then becomes a system of slavery? The colleges will argue that they get their tuition fees paid for which more than recompenses them for their services.

 If we do a simple maths task, we can work out that if we divide the $1.5 billion between all 125 members of the top 25 football colleges then each players school fees would be $480,000. Even if we half it that is an expensive education that even the British Conservative party front bench would baulk at.

Let’s dig a little deeper into the dark heart of race and college football.

 Imagine; a player gets a scholarship to play football at a prestigious football college. At first glance the picture looks like a utopian dream of positive action for black players. At 13.2% of the US population and a representation of 47.1% of top college league players being black then all is good in the college hood, no?

68.7% of NFL players are black, hallelujah we have a positive story at last, no?

Surely, with figures like this football is the one great vestige where the American dream lives on. Poverty and inequality be gone!

Hold on, only about 1.6% of college players actually make it to the professional league, long odds but at least they get an education (unless the player gets injured and then the scholarship and the education is withdrawn).

 According to a study by Rachel Allison of Mississippi State University, rather than one of positive outcomes this tells us a different story. She explains that: “The cultural glorification of black athletes, racial bias and discrimination in social institutions like education, racial ideologies of black physical superiority, and strong social support for sport in families and communities may lead many black men to over-identify with sport.” and that “85 percent of black players and 39 percent of white players aspired to the NFL.

 

Another factor is that most black players will come from poorer backgrounds and schools with less facilities. Black players see football as a way out of poverty the fact that their areas and schools are more disadvantaged than the average white NFL player’s illustrates that they have little choice. Their schools are not equipped to give them the education that they need to get out of poverty and their communities do not have the opportunities for them to work themselves out of poverty.

 For white kids there are simply more options so football is more of a luxury than a lottery ticket. For black kids the reality of their lives means that their only way out of poverty is football (or sport) because that is what they are told, and that was what they see, and that is what they are given.

 These kids are sold the American dream, told that they can make it to the big time like their gods, the Cam Newtons and Patrick Mahomes. They are used by their schools as gladiators to further the glory of their principal’s ego and the trophy cupboard, the glory of Rome or whatever backwater town they represent. The Friday Nights Lights phenomenon, where in towns up and down America the residents come to support their school football as they do battle with their local rivals. For on that night these kids become minor deities, junior gladiators, champions of Caesar.

This builds up the desire; it’s like nicotine permeating into their young dreams. The American dream stands before them like the ghost of Anchises, the father of Aeneas Virgil’s fictional founder of Rome, only to disappear when, like Aeneas in the underworld, they try to embrace the spectral form. It’s in this Darwinian struggle that they have to endure, not just broken bones and concussions, but the dawning of their broken dreams. They are sold into the slavery of college football; although, maybe slavery is too harsh a word. After all they do have a choice, slaves didn’t. Like their ancestors after the abolition of slavery, these kids go unwittingly into indentured servitude. Their ancestors worked the land in return for very little but the idea that they were free men striving to achieve the American dream, whilst the owners of the land simply took everything.

College football, “look mom it’s just like the professionals but without the pay”. 

 And then it’s all over, they don’t become part of the 1.6% due to injury or plain lack of talent. Their whole life, the raison d’être gone, where can they go? They have a degree, but they also have no idea of what to do with their degree and their communities have little to offer.

They have been focused on one thing and that is football. There isn’t even any minor league like in Baseball or 2nd and 3rd divisions like in European football where these kids can still make a good living from their expertise in skillfully executed, controlled violence. There have been other leagues like the XFL and NFL Europe but, as in the case of the lack of a minor league and NFL Europe, the owners didn’t want anything to cause a distraction or disruption to their oligarchy and Covid put paid to the second coming of the XFL.

And what of the lucky few who get to be Gods in the game of the Titans.

The average NFL career lasts 3 years before they are ushered out for a younger cheaper model. And what about the American dream, the wealth and success? The median salary of an NFL player is $860,000 (£657,000). This is nothing to be turned down but if we play the averages and consider the road to this dream for a three-year career for $2.5 million overall.

 

Is it a dream worth almost dying for?

If we consider the biggest earning team in the NFL, the Dallas Cowboys took $950 million in revenue in 2019, with a median average wage bill of less than a million per player per year, we should ask the question, who is living the dream? Yet again, just like in college this adds up to a lack of ownership by the people who hold the means of production. Players from poor black communities are allowed into the arena of the rich by way of benefaction by the owners.

So long as they don’t make too much noise or disrespect the national anthem or flag by standing for the Star-Spangled Banner, then they are given a limited pass until someone better comes along. That banner is far from flying over the land of the free.

As Galeano would say, these people really are human resources, they are arms and they are definitely numbers and every year they all offer up their bones to this religion. 

mike Ames

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