Archive for February, 2018

Black Panther: A Cinematic Marvel 

Posted in Film Criticism, Movie Reviews with tags , , on February 25, 2018 by playthell
 
The Wakandans 

 The Movie is the Message

When I was a boy growing up in racist segregated Florida, where white supremacy was a fact in law and custom, my grandmother used to say “Boy, don’t pay no attention to those ignorant crackers; cause when the Lord made colored people he was really showing off.”  I thought of her the other night as I gazed at the beautiful people of Wakanda, a mythical African nation, on the silver screen at the Magic Johnson theater.  They struck me as a cinematic representation of Duke Ellington’s classic composition, “A Black and Tan Fantasy.” For my money, just the opportunity to gaze upon the lush ebony beauty of Lupita Nyong’o on the giant screen was worth the price of the ticket.

Lupita Nwong’o

An African Beauty

Black Panther, the latest blockbuster movie from Marvel comics is a cinematic Marvel that is taking the world by storm and raking in grand theft dough. Directed by young Afro-American filmmaker Ryan Coogler, whose debut film Fruitvale Station won kudos at the Sundance Festival, the movie is exceeding all expectations. It returned the 250 million dollar investment – 200 million in production cost and 50 million in promotion – and showed a profit of 177 million within the first four days of it’s opening.

According to a February 20, article in Vanity Fair the movie grossed 242 million domestically and 427 million world-wide. Some film industry analysts are predicting that revenues from this film could reach a billion dollars!   The film’s spectacular box office performance – which is the best ever for a February release – will insure that a sequel will be made. Already young black men have been observed copying the hand gestures of the warriors in the film, and it’s anybody’s guess how big this phenomenon will become.

What at first seemed like a reckless act, investing such a vast sum in a movie featuring black people and set in Africa – 35 million more than Dr. Strange and 25 million more than Spider Man’s Homecoming – has turned out to be a brilliant business decision.  Yet, it was not business matters alone but a good measure of altruism on the part of Kevin Fiege, President of Marvel Studios, who persisted despite opposition within the company, and decided to make this film.  Recounting the reason why he and Director Coogler – who became a fan of the Black Panther when he first discovered  him in a Marvel comic  in an Oakland bookstore at the age of eight – wanted to bring the black superhero to the screen, Fiege told CNBC

“He’s making this movie for his 8-year-old self. Most importantly, you do it for other 8-year-olds, to inspire the next generation the way we were inspired. And in this case, when Ryan was growing up, perhaps there weren’t that many of these heroes to be inspired by that looked like him.”

Director Ryan Coogler

This is a remarkable and admirable departure from the values, commercial and cultural, that has governed the movie industry since the golden days of Hollywood.  As Neal Gabler points out in his path-breaking book “An Empire of their Own: How the Jews Created Hollywood,” the Jewish movie Moguls that built the big studios which dominated movie making were fundamentally businessmen whose principle objective was to provide escapist fare to a mass market for maximum profit.  They were not men on a mission to rescue the Jewish image from anti-Semitic propaganda, but businessmen trying to make money by enhancing the fantasy life and entertain their audience.  It was they who gave us the blond sex goddesses – Mae West, Gloria Swanson, Marylin Monroe, Kim Novak, et al – the icons of Nazi wet dreams.

In view of attitudes like that, which continue to persist, the making of Black Panther was something of a miracle.  The movie’s greatest value lay in the inspirational effect it will have on children, especially black children.   When I was a boy the only images I saw of Africans were mostly in the Tarzan movies and they were always mindless savages who said “ooga booga” and docilely did the bidding of white folks.  This conception of Africa was as much a fantasy as Wakanda, but it was demeaning to black people and amounted to psychological warfare on black children.   I wonder what affect it would have had on my imagination and self-conception –  which was already quite healthy due to my wonderful family and black teachers – if I had seen such a movie as a kid.

However, this is a movie that can appeal to people of all ages people of all ages who are into fantasy and super-hero flicks employing the computer-generated spectacles that are the stock in trade of this genre, will love the movie too.  Yet, the appeal of this movie is not simply the techno-wizardry of the spectacle, but a talented cast that makes this comic book fable come to life – and it has been a long time coming considering the fact that the black Panther was introduced in Marvel comic books 50 years ago.

The cast, composed of African and Afro-American actors, features seasoned veterans such as Academy Award winner Angela Bassett and Forest Whitaker, both Afro-American actors, and the West African actor Isaac de Bankole from the Cameroons. They are joined by dashing new comers like the Academy Award-winning Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o, and Afro-American actors Michael B. Jordon and Chadwick Boseman, one of the hottest actors in the game.  A brilliant and compelling actor, Boseman has been compiling quite a resume playing iconic Afro-American historical figures such as Jackie Robinson, James Brown and Thurgood Marshall.

There are many messages in this movie, intentional or not. The brilliance, courage and leadership ability of women is assumed as the most powerful General who commands the armed forces of Wakanda and the leading scientist are women. The Wakandans are anti-imperialists who have developed superior weapons because of their advanced scientific development but refuse to use them to conquer others.

The lessons about gender equality, commitment to science as a means of elevating humanity and anti-imperialism are valuable lessons for all youths, male and female.  And the fact that a studio invested a quarter of a billion dollars in a movie featuring black folks set in Africa, and has double their investment in two weeks, shattering all the myths about movies featuring black casts don’t sell well, is a welcome revelation.

However, there is a curious lesson emphasized by the King when confronted by a long-lost brother, played by Michael B. Jordon, challenges him for the throne and denounces him for refusing to arm oppressed black people around the world.  The two brothers are cast as hero and villain, good against evil.  However, when the “good” king explains why he will not arm black people with their superior weapons it sounds like something white folks would put in his mouth, not something a sane black person would say.

Boseman and Jordon

For in the eyes of white Americans no transgression by whites against blacks ever justifies violent retaliation. Which is why white Americans praised the forgiving families of the nine black worshippers gunned down in their Charleston church by the virulent white racist Dillion Root, when they would be screaming for the head of a black man who committed such a crime against whites.  This is how the white power of the purse censor black expression.  Hence, as I listened to the Wakandan king’s explanation, I thought of independent black film maker Tyler Perry’s axiom on the Golden Rule: “He who has the gold rules!”

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Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
February 25th 2016

Traitor, Narcissist or Fool?

Posted in Did Russia Interfere in the US Election?, On Donald Trump, On Foreign Affairs with tags , , on February 25, 2018 by playthell

Getting their Heads Together?

On Devious Deluded Donald and the Russians

Watching Donald Trump stroll across the White House grounds, after deplaning from the presidential helicopter, I was puzzled about his state of mind.  He seemed slightly giddy about the contents of a 37-page indictment against 13 Russians for having violated American laws; interfering in the 2016 Presidential election to insure the victory of the Trump campaign and the defeat of Hillary Clinton. The indictment, which had just been announced by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office and can be read online, spells out the criminal violations defendants are charged with:

U.S. law bans foreign nationals from making certain expenditures or financial disbursements for the purpose of influencing federal elections. U.S. law also bars agents of any foreign entity from engaging in political activities within the United States without first registering with the Attorney General. And U.S. law requires certain foreign nationals seeking entry to the United States to obtain a visa by providing truthful and accurate information to the government.

Since these indictments prove that the Special Counsel is conducting a real investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election – which Trump has repeatedly call a “witch hunt” and “Democratic ruse” to explain their lost of an election “they should have won” – it is hard to fathom the reason for his glee.  Now that the Russian intervention is an Established fact in the public domain, the world will be waiting to see how the American president responds to this cyber-attack on our democratic process from Russia.

Although there is no specific allegation of Russian government involvement, intelligence experts familiar with Russian covert intelligence methods like Malcolm Nance – author of the prescient book “The Plot to Hack America”–  overwhelmingly agree that an operation of this magnitude could not have happened without Putin’s approval. Mueller’s indictment richly details the extent of the Russian efforts and names Putin’s pal, Yezgeny Peigozin, as a central figure in the Russian disinformation campaign.

A shady character who went from a petty criminal and ex-con selling hot dogs on the street, to a super-rich Oligarch after the fall of the Russian communist system, the indictment fingers him as the money man that financed the activities of the INTERNET RESEARCH AGENCY LLC, the major organization that flooded the internet with disinformation that “had a strategic goal to sow discord in the U.S. political system, including the 2016 U.S. presidential election.”

The indictment further alleges “Defendants posted derogatory information about a number of candidates, and by early to mid-2016, Defendants” operations included supporting the presidential campaign of the -candidate Donald J. Trump (“Trump Campaign”) and disparaging Hillary Clinton.”  Yezgeny is so close the Russian leader he is known as “Putin’s Chef.”  Hence the chance that he acted without Putin’s approval are about equal to a popsicle’s chances of survival in a pizza oven.

All this puts Trump on the spot, as he is pressured to enact the anti-Russian sanctions that has passed both houses of Congress by a wide margin. Or come up with a plausible explanation for his refusal.  It is a sign of the panic that has beset Trump’s advisors that they are running around parroting the President’s view that the indictments have exonerated him, his campaign staff, and them from the charge of “collusion.”  It is a measure of the accidental president’s depravity that the only thing about these indictments that appear to interest him is that he is not charged with anything, and he claims the Russian activities had “no effect on the outcome of the election.”

The fact that the Russians tried to subvert our elections has failed to provoke any serious response from Trump, let alone sanctions.  According to former Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman, who was a member of the Watergate Committee that voted to impeach President Nixon, Trump’s inaction and apparent indifference to the Russian Cyber-attack on our democratic process is more than ample grounds for impeachment, whether his campaign “colluded” or not, because he has violated his oath “to defend the Constitution from all enemies foreign and domestic.”

Alas, while Trump has yet to offer a single word of condemnation against his pal Putin, he has leveled plenty of criticism and invective at the loyal Americans in law enforcement who are investigating the Russian attack.   Devious Donald has even gone to the extraordinary length of conflating the Mueller investigation of his campaign with the school shootings in Florida. Astonishingly, Trump has the unmitigated gall to blame the failure of the FBI to stop the school shooting on the claim that they were expending all their assets investigating him!   However, this statement reveals both an ignorance of Florida law, and how the FBI works.  First, Cruz had a legally acquired weapon and therefore had violated no laws before the shootings.  Secondly, we do not have preventive detention laws in the US, so what could the FBI have done?

There were already numerous reports to local law enforcement agencies, but nothing was done; yet this is their responsibility.  Trump, a political ignoramus who does not exhibit any observable curiosity about the art and science of governing, fails to understand that the FBI is divided into two operational sections.  One section deals with criminal matters the other with national security.  Hence those agents tasked with Russian election tampering have nothing to do with the agents who would investigate the school shooter.

But then, the truth is a relative thing for this president, who believes in “alternative facts.” And seems to only care about covering his ass.  Alas, one does not need specialized training to recognize the symptoms of “Malignant Narcissism” and “Paranoia,” with which a host of distinguished Psychiatrist and psychologists have diagnosed Trump. Hence while it remains to be determined if Trump is a traitor, he is unquestionably a narcissist and a fool!  His tweets in response to the indictments reveal a disorganized and delusional mind at best.  I think it is past time that we give the opinions of professional shrinks their due.  Amid great criticism they have embraced their “duty to warn” the rest of us about the dangers posed by such a deluded instable leader, who holds the fate of the earth in his hands as commander of the US nuclear arsenal.  We should act on the Doctors’ advice and demand that Congress impeach Devious Donald before it’s too late.

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Playthell Benjamin
Harlem, New York,
February 16, 2016

 

Politics Make Strange Bedfellows!

Posted in Uncategorized on February 25, 2018 by playthell

J. Edgar Hoover, Founding Director of the FBI

On Trump, the FBI and Me

Andrew McCabe, the Deputy Director of the FBI, has been fired by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, after after quitting his post at the agency.  A seasoned law enforcement professional who has honorably served the nation for over 20 years, McCabe was drummed out of office by the reckless and vulgar attacks of Donald Trump, the wanna-be dictator who presently occupies the Oval Office.

On the face of it, there is a rotting in the body politic when a megalomaniacal compulsive liar, who has spent his life dealing with mobbed up companies in the New York construction racket, and laundering dirty Russian money, can drive a dedicated lawman who has led the fight against dangerous criminals and terrorists out of his post.

There is no greater indication that we are living in fantastical times than the fact that I feel compelled to defend the FBI against the attacks of the President. Furthermore, I am willing to go about this work in concert with odious characters who in normal times I would have nothing to do with.  Politics does indeed make strange bedfellows.  Alas, I approach this alliance like a carnival performer who is compelled to hold his nose and kiss a skunk because the act must go on.

My views on the Federal Bureau of Investigation has varied radically over the years. As a boy I listened to thrilling stories about the brave FBI who protected us from the evil Communist that denounced God and were trying to enslave us.  My admiration and respect increased as I was brainwashed by propagandistic movies like “I Was a Communist for the FBI,” where Frank Lovejoy played an earnest, incorruptible, undercover FBI agent who suffered the scorn of his family and friends that thought he had joined the evil Communist Party.  Then came Elliot Ness and The Untouchables, the fearless G-Men shooting it out with machine guns against the bad guys.  But that was the 1950’s, during the Red Scare of the McCarthy Era, the height of the Cold War when Communist conspiracies were believed to be unfolding everywhere.

However, during the tumultuous Sixties I developed a very different view of the FBI, when I became a victim of the FBI’s Counter-Intelligence Program; the notorious Co-In-Tel-Pro.  After having witnessed contempt for the law by racist white judges in Florida, and the lingering racist etiquette in the military despite efforts to stamp it out, observing the American nuclear strike force inside Central Security Control where the decision to launch nuclear weapons is made, and confronting the terrible plight of the plains Indians who lived on a reservation located near the base like a fort in the old west, I became radicalized.

These experiences made me a confused angry young man who wanted to bring about radical change in American society quickly.  It was during this period that I fell in league with a group of young Marxist revolutionaries who convinced me they had the blueprint for building a revolution that would bring justice to the poor and oppressed in America. Most of our elder tutors in radical politics were former communist who had joined the party because they were the only political party in the US that supported them in militant opposition against institutionalized white supremacy in the US -something the Democrats nor the Republicans had the inclination to do.   And they quit the CP when they abandoned their position on supporting the birth of a “Negro Nation” in the southern black belt.  These veterans of the militant anti-racist movement had suffered the anti-democratic attacks of the McCarthy era, and they presented a very different portrait of the FBI.

As I went on to engage in many militant struggles against race and class oppression as a founding member of the Revolutionary Action Movement aka RAM, I became a subject of interest to the FBI and their Co-IN-Tel-Pro files on RAM fill several volumes.  We assumed that we were being spied on by the FBI, but it was only after the Church Committee Hearings, the release of Co-In-Tel-Pro files under the Freedom of Information Act, and the publication of the pathbreaking study “Racial Matters: The FBI Secret File on Black America,” by historian Kenneth O’Reilly that I recognized the extent of FBI surveillance and covert action dirty tricks employed to disrupt our struggle against racist oppression, which we believed was justified by “any means necessary” as Malcolm X had declared. A principle which we knew white Americans passionately adhered to when their own freedom was involved.

The fact that J. Edgar Hoover, who had been the FBI Director from its creation by Congress in 1935 – after his appointment by President Calvin Coolidge in 1924 to head the Bureau of Investigation, which preceded the FBI – was an avowed racist, meant that in his eyes all anti-racist struggles by Afro-Americans was subversive.  Hoover saw Dr. Martin Luther King, a brilliant and saintly apostle of non-violent “passive resistance,” as much a danger to National Security as armed revolutionary Maoist like RAM.

When I discovered that Hoover’s first covert action campaign was against Marcus Garvey – leader of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, a mass black nationalist movement in the 1920’s that advocated Black Pride, collective economics and repatriation to Africa – I decided the FBI was the avowed enemy of Black Liberation.  And I view Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ orders to the FBI to investigate “Extreme Black Identity Activist” aka “Black Lives Matter” today, as a resurrection of Hoover’s discredited strategy.

For all these reasons, and more, I am one of the least likely candidates to mount a defense of the FBI.   However, as is often the case in politics: There are no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests.  Hence, ever since I became conscious of the political forces arrayed against the progress of non-white and working-class Americans, the rise of a right-wing oligarchy that would nullify all the progressive laws that benefit disadvantaged Americans going back to the New Deal, I have fought to oppose it.

I believe the election of Donald Trump is paving the way for just such a development, aided by the unlimited corporate spending made possible by the Citizen’s United Decision, which is turning our popular democracy into a plutocracy where the rich can buy politicians that are shills who place their private interests above the public interest.  The recently passed tax bill is a dramatic instance of the Republicans rewarding their donors.

Furthermore, being the amoral avaricious narcissist that he is, I believe Trump would willingly collude with the Russians to achieve the pinnacle of power.  And he would think nothing of obstructing justice to hide his dirty deeds because he believes the end will justify the means.  And so, apparently, does the Republicans in Congress, who see in the Trump presidency a rare opportunity to finally get their backward agenda enacted into law.

This explains why the Republican Congress, whom the Founding Fathers invested with the power to check the abuse of executive authority, are conspiring with the President to obstruct justice. Hence the fate of our democracy may well rest upon the shoulders of Robert Mueller, the Special Prosecutor, who has the will and the power to force the Congress to act based upon the results of his investigation…or failing to act the Republicans will be swept from power by the Democrats in the next election.   This would be the beginning of the end of the Trump Presidency and their radical right-wing Republican agenda.

The FBI, our premiere investigative agency, is central to the success of Mueller’s mission. That’s why Trump is itching to fire Mueller, and has mounted a vigorous campaign to besmirch the reputation and thus discredit the FBI.    Since politics is the art of the possible, which often means choosing the lesser evil, I am compelled to take an uncompromising stand in defense of the FBI; despite the presence of Jeff Sessions as Attorney General.  Sessions – who always strikes me as an unrepentant old school southern redneck right out of central casting – wishes to deploy FBI agents against “Extreme Black Identity Activist.  Yet, despite shades of Co-In-Tel- Pro the FBI remains, by far, the lesser evil when compared to a Trump autocracy.

 

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Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
February 10, 2018

The Deeper Meaning of the Super Bowl

Posted in On Sports!, On the Superbowl with tags , on February 25, 2018 by playthell

Duel Threat Quarterback Russell Wilson Celebrates Victory

On Football as an Expression of the American Martial Spirit

For millions of Americans football rises to the level of a civic religion. And once a year we turn our attention to the Super Bowl, a grand spectacle paying homage to the God’s of the game; the champions of the American Football Conference and the National Football Conference that emerge at the end of a season of bloody carnage on the gridiron. The Super Bowl is a national bacchanal marked by gluttony, drunkenness, and myriad other debaucheries worthy of an ancient Dionysian ritual.  Hence the thoughtful observer might reasonably ask: What’s it all about, this game of football?

“He knows not cricket who only cricket knows,” says the brilliant Trinidadian polymath C.L.R. James, in the opening passage of his Erudite and insightful book Beyond a Boundary, a treatise on the Sport of Cricket that one historian of Victorian England Dr. Keith A.P. Sandiford, told this writer “changed the way we look at Victorian society.”   This, he explained, is because “before James’ broadly learned text nobody recognized the importance of sport as the embodiment of deeply held societal values.” The brilliance of C. L. R. James’ analysis is that he demonstrated how the game of Cricket embodied the values of the British upper class during the Victorian era, when Britannia ruled the world.

One could equally claim “he knows not football who only football knows.”  Guided by a Master Narrative of American civilization that is fashioned in the popular mind by hype artists and mythmakers more than the peer reviewed scholarship of professional historians, Americans like to think we are a peace-loving country.  Yet, alas, our history and present circumstances suggest otherwise.

The United States was born in a bloody war; the vast and fertile land Anglo-Saxon settler/colonists fought their British cousins for was stolen from the indigenous people by force of arms; then the settlers enacted genocidal policies to reduce the “Indian” population; they enslaved African Americans for 250 years employing some of the most savage depraved practices in history. They introduced the unprecedented destructiveness of modern warfare during the Civil War; provoked a war with Spain and seized her colonies at the end of the 19th century; and militarily intervened overtly or covertly in other countries over a hundred times in the 20th century.  Perhaps this is what we might expect from a country whose national mascot is a bird of prey, the Bald Eagle, and the national Anthem is a war song written by a slaveholder Francis Scott Key, in celebration of a victorious American battle in a war to defend the slave trade!

Hence, like Cricket in Victorian England, football embodies some fundamental American values that harken back to the formation of the nation.  And like Cricket, football began as a patrician sport played by upper class white males in the Ivy League; commencing with the Princeton v Rutgers game in 1869 – two years after the Marquis de Queensbury introduced the formal rules of boxing, transforming artless bare-knuckle brawls between pugnacious bullies into the martial art of pugilism, which at it’s best becomes what A. J.  Liebling calls a “Sweet Science.”

Driven by anxieties over the fear that upper-class white men were becoming “feminized” from “over civilization,” advocates of “the strenuous life,” such as Teddy Roosevelt, began to embrace the sport of pugilism as a proper manly pursuit.  The prestigious New York Athletic Club, playground of the rich and famous, hired a former professional bare-knuckle fighter and trainer Mike Donovan – nick named,” The Professor,” due to his knowledge of the sport – to teach men of the privileged class the fine points of pugilism. Hence boxing also became popular among the young men who played football in the Ivy League; men who would later become leaders among those who pass the laws, control commerce, define cultural standards and determine the proper manners and morals for the nation.

Yet it was the game of football that most faithfully reflected the Zeitgeist of a nation embarking on the road to empire.  It was the ideal sport for the age of “Muscular Christianity,” Social Darwinism, Anglo-Saxon ethnic/gender euphoria, the pseudo-science of Eugenics, and white male supremacy.  Football, from which black men were formally barred, became even more important as a demonstration of superior white male prowess after Jack Johnson won the World Heavy-Weight Championship. 

The gravity of this event for white supremacists was poignantly expressed in the hysteria of novelist Jack London’s call for a “Great White Hope” to take back the World Heavy-Weight Boxing Championship from the cocky, ebony black, Jack Johnson.  A fascinating man of elegance, in and outside the ring, who greatly influenced the “arrogant” public persona of Muhammad Ali. London viewed Johnson’s ascendancy to the Heavy-Weight throne as an unmitigated catastrophe!

Jack Johnson

Challenging the Myth of White Male Prowess
Breaking Taboos

A Menace to Society?

London’s views were widely held by white men everywhere.  The danger, as they saw it, lay in the fact that Heavy-Weight Champions were universally viewed as the most potent men on earth, and the trash talkin Johnson – who became a sex symbol to white women when that was the ultimate taboo – openly mocked and challenged the claim of white male superiority, and by implication the system of white supremacy that supported it.

No one personified the spirit of this golden age of white supremacy like Teddy Roosevelt – who served as US President from 1901 to 1909 – who was at various times a lawman, cowboy, cavalry officer, statesman, and intellectual.  A rich white Anglo-Saxon hetero-sexual male, born and bred among the Manhattan elite, Teddy was a real tough guy and passionate fan of pugilism who regularly beat the boxing bag in the White House Rose Garden.

Teddy’ public ridicule of white Heavy-Weight Champion Tommy Burns’ shameful dodging of the black challenger forced him into the ring with Johnson, who whipped the white champion with ease on December 26, 1908. Johnson’s victory enraged white Americans, whipping up a wave of violent racist hysteria that resulted in armed attacks on Afro-Americans nationwide by white mobs, resulting in injury and deaths just days before Christmas.  An avowed White Supremacist and Eugenicist, Roosevelt would write an article denouncing Johnson.  Dr. WEB Dubois, arguably America’s deepest social thinker at the time, observed that Johnson’s only crime “is his unforgivable blackness.”

Teddy would make clear his belief that football is essential to the character development of white American males – the exclusion of black men made it a quintessentially American game – when a group of reformers developed a movement to legally ban football as a barbarous practice unworthy of a civilized society in the 20th century.  Alas, despite the eloquent apologia of its many fans and defenders, football is a brutal blood sport that conjure up some of the dangerous spectacles in the Roman Circus Maximus. Although football players are not expected to fight to the death like Roman Gladiators, it is a distinction without a difference when we consider the consequences of playing football. Recent research shows a majority of professional football players suffer brain damage, and some die from injuries they received from playing the game.

Without the scientifically engineered equipment players now enjoy, football at the turn of the 20th century was a bloody barbarous business that resembled organized mayhem.  This period is richly detailed by David Kay Miller in his pathbreaking book The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football. Although Teddy didn’t make the varsity squad at Harvard because he was nearsighted, he remained one of the sport’s biggest boosters. He saw playing the game as excellent preparation for military combat and even attributed the success of the Cavalrymen he commanded during the Spanish/American War – popularly known as “Rough Riders” – to the fact that they were former football players.

Teddy Roosevelt: Cavalry Officer

At Santiago de Cuba

In a 1903 speech Roosevelt said, “I believe in rough games and in rough, manly sports. I do not feel any particular sympathy for the person who gets battered about a good deal so long as it is not fatal.”  However, the events of 1904 put Teddy, and all football fans on the defensive.  A measure of the carnage could be seen in a Chicago Tribune report of 18 deaths and 159 serious injuries among amateur football players in Prep schools.

As the casualty and injury rate continued to rise in 1905, amid public protests and editorial comment openly comparing football players to Roman Gladiators Roosevelt, now President of the USA now president of the USA for four years and basking in the prestige of having negotiated an end to the war between Russia and Japan – sending shockwaves throughout the white world when Japan kicked Russia’s ass –  decided to take a hands-on approach to making football safer.

A knowledgeable student of the game, Teddy could see that most of the injuries came from the power running strategy, with plays like the “Flying Wedge,” where groups of men repeatedly collided with each other at full speed.  His solution was to get the coaches to incorporate the forward pass in their offense, which was then illegal. Although some thought the decision blasphemous and would ruin the game, it reduced injuries, saved football from extinction, and gave us the modern game.

Today professional football is dominated by the forward pass, and with the speed, style and grace Afro-American athletes bring to the “skills” positions football has become the greatest show on turf.  In view of its history – and the state of perpetual warfare we find ourselves in today – it is no accident that the terminology used to describe the game is filled with military metaphors. The long pass is “the bomb.” The quarterbacks that throw them are called “field generals with “cannon arms.”  Accurate passes are called “bullets.”  The world class speed of wide receivers is called “after burners” like in fighter jets.  Line play is called “battling in the trenches.” And the paramount objective of the game is to advance and hold the opponent’s territory.

The desire to dominate opponents by sheer brute force is inculcated in players at an early age; it is the result of systematic indoctrination with the idea they are “warriors.”  When I played high school football in football cray Florida, before every game we would form a circle, pile on hands and repeat after the coach in a rising crescendo: “We want them…Before our feet!  They shall not rise!!!”  Yet, notwithstanding the fact that football remains a dangerous game, a metaphor for war and a license to commit legal assault – often resulting in life altering injury to the players, it is wildly popular.

Indeed, football is so popular that according to Richard Deitch of Sports Illustrated, NBC will average more than 5 million dollars for a 30-second commercial during the Super Bowl!  And it has truly become the all-American sport; transcending race, class and ethnicity. The once lily-white teams from the foundational cites of Philadelphia and Boston, that will clash in the Super Bowl, now look more like the national teams of Nigeria and Ghana.  For the millions of spectators watching in hovels and high-rise penthouses, it’s just a game…but then: He knows not football who only football knows.

 

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Playthell, G Benjamin,
February 6, 2018