Matt Birk, a Harvard-educated former Super Bowl-winning NFL center who is currently a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor of Minnesota, was in the news last week for saying that our country promotes abortion by “telling women they should have careers.” Speaking at a National Right to Life event last month, Birk said that “our culture loudly and stealthily promotes abortion, telling women they should look a certain way, they should have careers—all of these things.” He also compared abortion to slavery and said pro-abortion activists “always want to go to the rape card.” Then he made a joke about winning a Super Bowl.
Because Birk, who went to Harvard, is running for office as a pro-business Republican, it would be weird if he didn’t pop off with some reactionary crap about how women should get back in the home with their brood, as that idea is central to both the conservative and neoliberal agendas. But while those ideas are very old, there’s also nothing new about hearing them from Birk. For more than a decade, Birk, who holds a degree in economics from Harvard, has spent years leaking increasingly potent idea-clouds—not only about abortion and women, but also gay marriage and science. Also for more than a decade, Birk has been benefitting from the smart-guy reputation that comes with having graduated from Harvard. He’s long enjoyed fawning media coverage, including mentions of the 34 he scored on the ACT in high school, and has routinely landed on lists of “smartest athletes.” This part of his identity is crucial to his brand. Birk makes sure to highlight that he went to Harvard in campaign materials and his 2022 National Right to Life convention speaker bio said:
Super Bowl champion Matt Birk is a 15-year veteran of the National Football League and currently serves as Special Assistant to the NFL. A six-time NFL Pro Bowl Selection and two-time All Pro, Matt proved to be an undisputed leader on the field and was named the sixth smartest athlete by Sporting News. A graduate of Harvard University, Matt was the recipient of the 2011 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award for his excellence on and off the field, including his commitment to emphasizing the importance of education through his H.I.K.E. Foundation.
Sixth smartest! Why such a ranking was even devised in the first place is maybe a question for another day; Birk’s test scores and degrees tell us as much about his ability to play football as their high school mile times would tell us about the ability of Sporting News journalists to write about professional football. And it certainly says nothing about the moral acuity of Matt Birk—a matter of at least some relevance in a league that has spent the past decade pretending to care about racial justice, sexual violence, and the wellbeing of its own players. Dining out on a Sporting News “smartest athletes” ranking from 2010 that isn’t even on the internet anymore is pretty pathetic by any standard. This helps it fit in alongside most everything else that Birk (Harvard ’98) has ever said.
In 2012, our Harvard Man wrote an op-ed in the Star Tribune supporting a law that would ban gay marriage in Minnesota. Birk was then playing his last NFL season, and very upset:
Same-sex unions may not affect my marriage specifically, but it will affect my children—the next generation. Ideas have consequences, and laws shape culture. Marriage redefinition will affect the broader well-being of children and the welfare of society. As a Christian and a citizen, I am compelled to care about both.
I am speaking out on this issue because it is far too important to remain silent. People who are simply acknowledging the basic reality of marriage between one man and one woman are being labeled as “bigots” and “homophobic.” Aren’t we past that as a society?
In 2013, the year of his Harvard class’s 15th anniversary celebration, Birk explained that he wouldn’t be going to the White House with the rest of the Ravens Super Bowl-winning team, because then-President Obama had once thanked Planned Parenthood in a speech.
“Planned Parenthood performs about 330,000 abortions a year,” Birk said. “I am Catholic, I am active in the Pro-Life movement and I just felt like I couldn’t deal with that. I couldn’t endorse that in any way.”
After retiring following the 2012 Super Bowl, a fawning profile in the Star Tribune sold Birk as the next big potential thing in Republican politics in Minnesota, noting a little-remarked-upon part of his bio:
“He is a graduate of Harvard University with a degree in economics, and wears a Crimson football tattoo on his left leg. He plans to donate his brain to science because of his concerns over football concussions, and he does not wear his Super Bowl ring regularly, telling one person recently that it was big and ‘obnoxious.’”
Coded respectability politics bullshit about flashy jewelry aside, the former Harvard football player’s concerns about football-induced brain trauma diminished some after he started working for the NFL in 2014. In 2013, Harvard’s Birk said he would donate his brain and spinal cord to “help further the understanding of the effects of football” and urged other players to do the same. Four years later, and by then on the NFL’s payroll as an advisor, Birk, of Harvard, changed his tune. After a study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association found that the brains of 110 out of 111 deceased former NFL players had evidence of CTE, the Harvard econ major expressed skepticism that calls into question his status of person who understands how numbers work.
Is Matt Birk smart? By virtue of having gone to Harvard, he’s certainly thought to be smart, though there’s no shortage of evidence to the contrary. Does it even matter if Matt Birk is smart? Probably not. What matters is that he uses the idea that he’s smart—did I mention he went to Harvard?—to provide cover and credibility for a movement that aims to exert domination over others. In this way especially, he’s just like many other Harvard grads before him.
Pointing to the diploma hanging on your wall is easier than actually trying to put together a morally coherent argument for your vision of a collective future, but what does it really say? After all, Harvard should be best understood as a $53 billion private company that relies on the exploitation of workers and the public to preserve its own brand’s status and the broader status quo; its main exports are finance bros and management consultants. The fetishization of this “success” has results that are sickening both figuratively and, in a civic sense, literally. It is how you end up with people thinking that Harvard’s Matt Birk might have anything worthwhile to say, and should maybe even be in charge.
There’s really not much to say about Matt Birk the candidate. He’s utterly off-the-rack, an absolutely unremarkable GOP creep with boring ideas and a terrible haircut. It’s much more illuminating, I think, to look at how he got here. By melding mainstream Republican politics—whatever those might be at any given moment—with his professional athlete fame and his Harvard-branded reputation as a smart guy, Birk manages to have the right meritocratic look and feel while displaying the deepest contempt for the basic rights of his fellow humans.
People have been mistaking Matt Birk for a smart guy for decades, when all he really is is a Harvard guy. And they’ve been mistaking Harvard guys for something more for much longer than that.