Not even 24 hours after Hollywood has-been Michael Rapaport tweeted to me the last of his puerile, racist memes, I looked up at a television in my gym and saw him on ESPN, contributing some inane wind about the NFL to keep the 24-hour sports-entertainment mill spinning. Paul Finebaum—who two weeks ago apologized after his condescending and dismissive remarks about Colin Kaepernick’s protest of racial inequity—preceded Rapaport as a guest on the network. You have to engage the breadth and depth of your imagination to imagine what indecency toward blacks might keep a white man off the air at ESPN; racism, be it coded or overt, seems to book a seat at the table.
Though an actor of little note and not a sports figure, Rapaport has common ground with many other nonathletes in the sports world: He, like so many coaches and analysts, has made millions on the backs and coattails of blacks but has little regard for us beyond how his association with us can advance his own self-interest.
It has to be disheartening for those who have worked with, employed and collaborated with Rapaport to observe him unrepentantly and gleefully dole out dull, racist putdowns across Twitter, yet face neither blackballing nor even mild rebuke. Similarly, it’s beyond cringeworthy when you wrap your head around the awkward dynamic between football players and a significant portion of those who make money to coach and analyze them.
In the wake of Kaepernick’s kneeling during the national anthem and subsequent kneelers inspired by his protest, it has become increasingly clear that football coaches are not leaders as much as they are leeches; talking heads are not analysts as much as they are apologists for the status quo. ESPN eagerly provides platforms to individuals cut from both of those cloths.
On Wednesday, Buffalo Bills coach Rex Ryan launched into an expletive-laden rant, desperate to
save his and his brother’s jobs fire up his players. The same man who earlier this year characterized a pathological liar and unabashed racist as courageous invoked Muhammad Ali during his rant. It’s difficult to say whether he can process his own cognitive dissonance; he might just be that stupid, that delusional or even that sociopathic.
The day before, I watched footage of Dabo Swinney channeling his inner William DeVaughn as he advised blacks to be thankful for what you got. The Clemson coach lamented protests during the national anthem as “creating more divisions”; he accused those concerned about police brutality of painting “with a broad brush”; he pointed to the existence of interracial marriage and “interracial churches” as proof of the realization of Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream. He waxed pseudo-philosophically, “It’s so easy to say we have a race problem, but we got a sin problem.”
But it never has been easy for white Americans to say we have a race problem. A significant portion of white Americans in 2016 are still trying to rationalize the foundational plunder, murder and exploitation that are more American than apple pie, more American even than reflexive fealty to the flag. Contrary to Swinney’s heal-the-world blathering, our churches and communities are still largely segregated, and our black quarterbacks and head coaches are still relatively scarce.
History textbooks—within the past year!—have mislabeled slaves as workers. Armchair social critics are still privileging an ahistorical, racist perspective in which our current societal inequalities in income and crime exist in a context-free vacuum. And dimwitted, paternalistic white patriarchs like Swinney are still leaning on the sanitized symbol of MLK while ignoring the reality of his activism and ideas.
The easy thing, in fact, is to say that we have “a sin problem.” The language of moral relativism is the language of exploitation and racism. It’s the language of a man who opposes paying the black labor on whose backs he has built a fortune “because there’s enough entitlement in this world as there is.” Swinney insists that he “didn’t get into coaching to make money.” This year he will be paid $5 million to coach “amateur” athletes in an “amateur” sport that sees everyone but the (largely black) talent amass troves of money. Call it God’s plan.
If we have a sin problem and not a race problem, then the oppression of blacks is caused by abstract forces beyond our grasp, and therefore out of Swinney’s hands. There’s no blame to be assigned, no responsibility to be assumed. Only God can sort this out; it’s best that we go on living our lives and saluting the flag. It’s Kaepernick and those who followed his lead in kneeling who are divisive, not the cyclical and systematic brutalization and murder of blacks at the hands of police. Swinney and his lot view silence, not justice, as the great unifier. They prefer to turn a blind eye, and for blacks to turn yet another cheek.
Swinney’s press conference reminded me of a Sopranos episode that I recently rewatched, from the show’s fifth season, in which Tony Soprano gets into a car accident with his nephew’s fiancee in the passenger seat. Rumors fly. Tony professes innocence to his wife, Carmela, who is justifiably skeptical. Tony says, "I know I haven't been an angel," referring to his having bedded hundreds of women behind her back. Then he adds, "But you've had your issues, too," referring to her admitting that she once desired another man, though never slept with him.
Tony Soprano is a sociopath, a moral monster. He can never accept blame; always feels that he, in fact, is the one being wronged; and endlessly rationalizes dysfunctional behavior, whether it be infidelity or murder.
The general discourse on racism and police brutality in America is just as absurd and sociopathic in its framing as the conversation between Tony and Carmela. As long as police and a significant portion of whites cling to this pretend innocence, the worse things will get in this country for the rest of us. The cost of pretend innocence is the nation’s soul.
The portion of white Americans who continue to defend an impossible-to-believe innocence—of racism, of exploitation, of police brutality, of indecency—risk becoming savages. In their hearts, where it matters most, they become savage. And they project that inner savagery onto those who don’t look like them, at home and abroad. They codify their savagery of the heart so that it is disguised as civility and decency.
This sort of white American abides by a cynical, circular logic in which whites are perpetually getting the short end of the stick, and blacks are the divisive racists. In which wealthy college coaches didn’t get into coaching for the money, and the teens risking their well-being for peanuts are entitled. It’s a warped ethical alchemy that leads to mass cognitive dissonance and delusion, so that brown people pay heavy taxes for reminding this portion of white Americans of how ugly this society can be, how out of step it is with its purported principles.
Kaepernick and the like are kneeling so that we might stop running the world into the ground as a sacrifice at the altar of American pretend goodness. At some point, ESPN will accept that human decency cannot be based on the market share of the offended party, or it will be recorded in history as a network that purposely perpetuated savage inequalities.
T.D. Williams was born and raised in New York City, where he spent his youth in a welfare hotel for the homeless in Times Square. He has been a soda salesperson, camp counselor, a parking lot attendant, a waiter, a bartender, a civil rights activist, a dean of college admissions and an adjunct professor. He is currently finishing his first novel, and his writing on sports and societal issues has appeared in various publications, including Sports Illustrated. Follow him on Twitter.