There is something cleansing about fire. It marks at once both an ending and a beginning. There are two sides to fire: There’s violence and destruction, and there’s the reassurance and protection—each one as powerful as the other.
We burn things: wood, garbage, forests, food. It signals the end of one cycle and the restart of something in its place, virtuously or otherwise. The act of burning human beings sounds vile, psychotic and merciless when read on paper, but the aforementioned duality of fire is purely present within both parties. The victim’s life is coming to a vicious, painful end while the victimizer’s mind is put at ease as his fears are quelled and ego is secured by annihilating this man, woman or child into cinder for breaking a law, whether written or not.
It is divine retribution, a biblical act. James Baldwin eloquently noted the consequences of mankind’s ever-destructive acts when he wrote, “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water; the fire next time.”
The lynchings of black men and women in the United States since the dawn of the African slave trade in the 17th century and lasting well into the 20th century have been well-documented. There are photos of the disgusting acts of murder—men hanged, arms and legs bound by rope, set ablaze in the midst of an enthusiastic crowd of Caucasian onlookers; a black body dummy hanging in effigy on a street light, adorned with a sign, “This Nigger Voted,” on his chest, courtesy of the Ku Klux Klan.
The pride of white men exposing these lawless acts only illustrates the arrogance of their rationale. It was a scare tactic, to ensure that no other blacks would disobey them, and that their ways of segregation, both literal and psychological, were supported by biblical morals and just doctrine. These white men weren’t going to allow oppressed people of color to interfere with their monopoly on power and wealth, built on the backs of black labor. Lynchings were a method to stop a potential black “agitator” from challenging the status quo, stirring up the attitudes of “good nigras.” Simply put, fire was to make the black man stay in his place.
Let’s fast-forward to the 21st century—specifically the summer of 2008. Jim Crow in its written form is a thing of the past. Black men and women have found monetary liberation in numerous ways, none more profoundly than in sports. African Americans have amassed fiscal richness as professional athletics via the NBA and NFL, most prominently. Sports in America have evolved from the humble and innocent pastimes of the 1940s and 1950s into a billion-dollar conglomerate that encapsulates key values of the USA: capitalism via conditional nationalism. Owners of teams accumulate massive wealth and power on the backs of their athletes’ labor, a majority of them black. Sound familiar?
When Cleveland Cavalier forward LeBron James decided to sign to the Miami Heat as a free agent in July 2010, his decision was met with anger by those in the area. Team owner Dan Gilbert said scathing things about his former player and removed anything with James’ likeness from the stadium, setting the tone for fans, most of them white, to burn his jersey in droves. The same happened when Kevin Durant vacated the Oklahoma City Thunder for the Golden State Warriors in 2016.
More pressing is a year ago when former San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick began to kneel during the national anthem to protest the unequivocal murders of unarmed people of color by white law enforcement without consequence. His jersey was burned, and his protest was vilified by millions who felt he was disrespecting his country.
While there are fundamental differences between the situations of Kap and James or Durant—James and Durant left their first teams, Kaepernick challenged the ideal of America, represented by the flag—the constant remains: Their jerseys were burned, and for the same reason. They didn’t stay in their place.
The core of the rationale of jersey burning stems back to lynching. The prejudiced entitlement practiced by the burning party is because the black player challenged their beliefs, be they political or simply in the context of diminishing the power of their former team. To be fair, white athletes are not immune from having their jerseys burned, too, but the ratio of black players to white team owners and fans calls to mind a similar ratio of black workers to white owners in the 18th and 19th centuries, don’t you think?
Therefore, the act of condemnation by fire in sports is not a light matter. It is an alarming tradition of overt dedication to sports team that is dangerous and unhealthy. It is, in fact, the remnants of a more time-honored ideal of carnivorous systemic erasure of black progress, whether to prevent the fiscal independence of other black athletes or to discourage the making of political statements on a globally observed platform. With the recent events involving Kaepernick, the U.S. president, the NFL at large and its fans, it’s time to have a real examination of how jersey burning is drawn from the same spirit that led whites to hunt, hang, burn and murder black people for centuries.
Now, America did not invent the act of burning people. Ancient Egyptians and Babylonians practiced it during war times as far back at 1971 B.C. Most notoriously, burning people at the stake was common in numerous countries during medieval times onward, killing lepers, women accused of witchcraft, homosexuals and the religiously noncompliant (see Joan of Arc). Americans were simply the latest to incorporate the act of combustible retribution.
From slavery to reconstruction to Jim Crow, setting black men and women on fire was justified by seemingly virtuous ideals of spiritual and religious loyalty, preached through law and regulation. As the country grew more civilized through the civil rights movement of the 1960s, lynchings decreased. However, the mindset that legitimized burning men was only dormant, and manifested itself in other ways: the systemic disenfranchisement of black people in housing, education, employment and substance abuse. As professional sports integrated African Americans, an opportunity to reintroduce tactics of slave breeding and labor by white owners was carried out via sports drafts, combines and deceptively disproportionate salaries. Yes, these athletes make millions, but it’s peanuts compared with the hundreds of billions the owners get. Think of it as modern-day sharecropping.
Recently, the president of the United States ignited a firestorm regarding black athletes that only served as proof that the volatile mindset of black burning is, unfortunately, still quite valid.
Days leading up to week 3 of the 2017 NFL season, the president addressed his distaste for NFL players who elected to kneel during the nation anthem prior to the games during a campaign rally in Alabama.
He asked NFL team owners to fire any of the “sons of bitches” who “disrespect our flag.” The commander in chief’s rhetoric about the flag and “The Star-Spangled Banner” being disrespected by those who don’t stand is not new. Numerous people rejected the act from Kaepernick and the few others who joined him. They were unable to incorporate the origin of his protest—police brutality—instead painting him as a traitor. While Kaepernick has begun the season as a free agent without a team, the rest of the league responded to this divisive conjecture by the president.
Hundreds more players knelt, locked arms or both. The most important demonstration for the sake of this examination came from the Pittsburgh Steelers. Led by their black head coach, Mike Tomlin, the team opted to remain inside the locker room during the anthem. This fueled the ire of many lifetime supporters of the Steelers, and prompted said supporters to denounce their fanship via social media. Many posted videos of themselves burning Steelers jerseys, paraphernalia and even season tickets, expressing that the team violated allegiance to the U.S., and that is unforgivable.
Following the games, the president expressed that his comments about the NFL flag protesters “had nothing to do with race” via Twitter. With that in mind, consider this. After the Steelers’ game against the Chicago Bears, a Pennsylvania fire chief posted to his Facebook page that coach Tomlin was a “no-good nigger” for his actions regarding the anthem. This racist bombast parallels the mindsets of Klansmen who posted the aforementioned sign “This Nigger Voted” on a dangling body, as if to say, “the nerve of this black man trying to engage in matters that don’t concern him.”
Also that weekend, former Republican Rep. Joe Walsh tweeted that these men, along with singer Stevie Wonder, who joined the protest by kneeling during a concert in New York City that same week, were nothing more than “ungrateful black multi millionaire[s].” This belief that these men are privileged to make lots of money and need not criticize the country is a carry-over from slave masters and overseers who believed that they allowed whatever provisions their slaves enjoyed and should consider themselves lucky.
To end this point, let’s return to Kaepernick. Once more, to be fair, whites weren’t alone in their rejection of his kneeling. For instance, former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis felt that Kaepernick’s protest should not be during the anthem, out of respect for U.S. military. However, the act of burning his jersey has gone far beyond fans stating their allegiance to American values by disassociation. This past week, a bar owner in Missouri made the news by taping to the foot of the bar’s front door a jersey of Oakland Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch adjacent to Kaepernick’s 49ers’ jersey, effectively spelling out “Lynch Kaepernick.”
This act, more than anything else, provides scary confirmation that the distain of Kap’s protest is so profound, it has conjured up a white citizen who affirms violence—whether fantastical hyperbole or inappropriate tongue-in-cheek—against a black citizen. With anything, if one person is thinking it, you know there are others who share the sentiment. And it absolutely cannot be overstated that this all stems from someone taking a stand against his people being disproportionately targeted by cops and said cops going unpunished.
That as much as anything speaks volumes about how the wishes and plight of the black American have been ignored by white America in lieu of maintaining a misplaced sense of patriotism through a red-white-and-blue piece of cloth and a 203-year-old song. It does not matter if fans are only burning jerseys genuinely because of their love of sports and their team and not because they harbor bigoted views toward black people. The very ideal of violent prejudice exists subliminally within the act, like an airborne virus. To acknowledge the parallels will be the only way to begin to douse the flame. And we cannot be satisfied; otherwise the embers will ignite again slowly.