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The NFL Is A Family

12:24 PM EST on January 12, 2023

Goodell, wearing a Damar Hamlin No. 3 hat, poses with Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Buffalo Bills owner Terry Pegula prior to a game between the New England Patriots and the Buffalo Bills at Highmark Stadium on January 08, 2023 in Orchard Park, New York.
Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images

Last week, when Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin began to show signs he may recover from his on-field cardiac arrest, everyone was overjoyed. Players were ecstatic that their friend and teammate would live; fans and commentators, their joy no doubt partially related to being relieved of the burden of feeling implicated in a man’s death, celebrated the news, too; and the NFL, its nightmare avoided, heaved a sigh of relief. Commissioner Roger Goodell wrote an open letter to fans addressing the improvements in Hamlin's health and offered these words: "Seeing the entire NFL family—teams, players, coaches, and fans like you—band together was yet another reminder that football is family: human, loving and resilient."

Taken at face value, this description of the NFL as a family could be read as a bland platitude. But narrow your eyes a little and another meaning comes into focus. It reminded me of a quote from Sophie Lewis's short book, Abolish the Family. In the introduction, they write:

For all purposes except capital accumulation, the promise of family falls abjectly short of itself. Often, this is nobody’s “fault” per se: simply, too much is being asked of too few. On the other hand, the family is where most of the rape happens on this earth, and most of the murder. No one is likelier to rob, bully, blackmail, manipulate, or hit you, or inflict unwanted touch, than family. Logically, announcing an intention to “treat you like family” (as so many airlines, restaurants, banks, retailers, and workplaces do) ought to register as a horrible threat. Instead, to be metaphorically “family” in someone’s eyes makes-believe that one has something quite . . . unfamilial. Namely: acceptance, solidarity, an open promise of help, welcome, and care.

Always—always—something is being euphemized or obscured when "the family" is invoked in a work context. Think of bosses dismissing the need for unions because "we're like a family here," or how those in the military carry out atrocities in the names of their "brothers." In this case, Goodell is recalling family to obscure all the ways the NFL really is like a family, the real family that Lewis describes, not the mythical one: the site of violence and abuse; the self-justifying patriarchal institution; the thing that holds itself up as the only refuge for the people it harms.

Football is human, loving, and resilient? That would be news to Colin Kaepernick, Brian Flores, and all the former players the NFL maimed, discarded, and then systematically tried to screw out of legal settlements. And it doesn't square with how the football media machine handles the toll the sport takes on its players. The standard way of processing the human suffering inherent in the NFL is to connect it to who wins and loses; relief is to be found in great football plays on the field. Many people thought it was very cool and meaningful, instead of possibly sad, that Hamlin's first words when he woke from his coma Wednesday evening were, "Did we win?" Similarly, much was made of the fact that fans of the opposing team showed support for Hamlin and the Bills, as if setting aside playoff implications to rally behind someone who almost died for their entertainment amounted to a favor. And lots of attention was paid to the Bills' "heartwarming" win on Sunday, by players, fans, media, and Hamlin himself, who cheered his teammates on from his hospital bed. Locating meaning in a terrible situation is a natural instinct. So is having an emotional response to a near-death experience. These feelings are valid and worth appreciating for what they are. But they’re also worth interrogating: Why do we accept the emotional connection between Hamlin’s injury and the redemptive pleasure of an epic football moment as a given? What meaning is made from Hamlin’s injury and recovery, and to what end is it employed? The NFL and an obliging media apparatus have already packaged Hamlin’s recovery as a feel-good story of love and kindness. But it’s also about exploitation, pain, and trauma. Perhaps this darker story, this unpleasant aspect of the NFL “family,” is easier to see from the outside. For example, for someone who isn’t invested in football, me, the Bills returning a kick for a touchdown on the first play back after Hamlin almost died on the field did not provoke jubilation, triumph, or happy tears connected to a sense of spirituality, but sadness and revulsion that operations could so quickly return to normal, less than a week after Hamlin’s near-death on live TV sickened the entire country. Is this what family does? Who benefits from this?

But then, Goodell and the league aren’t the only ones invested in the idea that football is family. Spend enough time listening to current and former NFL players talk about the league and the word “family” will come up. Teams are, of course, thought of as families, as is the broader coalition of players and personnel who comprise the league: the NFL family. And while the players’ shared labor allows them to build friendships, foster mutual respect, and provision care for one another—things Lewis might call football’s “latent utopian kernels”—this solidarity is best understood in context: a bud of humanity sprouting in spite of hostile growing conditions. Are those buds enough to justify the continued existence of the system? Of the family, anyhow, Lewis writes:

At present, it is standard among practically all communities to fête the family as a bastion of relative safety from state persecution and market coercion, and as a space for nurturing subordinated cultural practices, languages, and traditions. But this is not enough of a reason to spare the family. Frustratedly, Hazel Carby stressed the fact (for the benefit of her white sisters) that many racially, economically, and patriarchally oppressed people cleave proudly and fervently to the family. She was right; nevertheless, as Kathi Weeks puts it: “the model of the nuclear family that has served subordinated groups as a fence against the state, society and capital is the very same white, settler, bourgeois, heterosexual, and patriarchal institution that was imposed by the state, society, and capital on the formerly enslaved, indigenous peoples, and waves of immigrants, all of whom continue to be at once in need of its meagre protections and marginalized by its legacies and prescriptions.”

The NFL, like the family, provides some measure of security and community for its members. Also like the family, that security is contingent and unevenly distributed. The NFL, like the family, is an accepted thread of our shared cultural and social fabric, and like the family, its existence is predicated on ownership, habituated violence, and damaging notions of masculinity. It’s taken for granted that both the family and the NFL evolved in their own right, but both were formed—and at the limit enforced—by the realities of capitalism. The NFL, like the family, justifies itself as natural and inevitable, when in reality it's born of structures and narratives that are, right now, up for grabs. 

So, the work is in the grabbing. For Lewis and other writers and activists, family abolition means reimagining the concept of kinship altogether, admitting we don’t quite yet know what relations beyond capital accumulation look like while committing to the immediate political agenda of societal transformation, and, crucially, fighting for justice and care for vulnerable people at every turn. As one example, Lewis writes about the United States’ immigration policy of family separation: 

I don’t have to tell you this, but: it is good to protest and riot against “family separations” especially when young people and their companions are being ripped apart and warehoused in cages in their thousands rather than helped to make the crossing over arbitrary lines on the earth. Forced family reunification is not always a good thing, and can even be lethal to some people, but the separational techniques of the border of any nation-state are the very heart of the family regime.

Border-torture tramples and even targets kin-relationships in part to uphold the fiction that the nation-state respects the integrity of families once they have been admitted. Border guards do not somehow abolish the family, they are its prime enforcers. Fighting the family regime might thus look like several different things: prising the state’s boot off the neck of a “legal” family of “aliens,” for instance, and at the same time offering solidarity to a queer kid in that same family, should she need it, against her parents.

This is the careful, compassionate gaze we should turn to professional football and Hamlin’s injury: Valuing the bonds of teamwork and friendship and the comfort they provide in a violent, lethal sport, without losing sight of who benefits the most from the NFL and from ensuring it remains just as it is. So far, the latter part of this prescription has been missing. The story of Hamlin’s injury has been covered almost entirely in ways that rhyme with the league’s coverage, which is to say, downplaying the horror football wreaks on players in the name of profit and instead focusing on Hamlin’s miraculous recovery.

ESPN pundits talked about Hamlin’s dedication to the game and how inspiring it was that he brought people together. The New York Times architecture critic (?) wrote in a story headlined “How Damar Hamlin’s Recovery Allowed Us to Breathe” that Hamlin’s injury “illuminated the country’s [...]  longing for unity in polarizing times.” On Sunday’s broadcast, Jim Nantz said, “What we’ve really seen this week is a glimpse of humanity at its very best.” My colleague Drew Magary wrote that “Hamlin’s recovery has been, at its core, a feel-good story.” Of course it feels good that Hamlin is alive, but it’s not the unquestionable core of the story. How else can we grab this? How can we make meaning from this tragedy, meaning that might help prevent it in the future, not smooth the path for it to happen again?

The accidental accuracy of Goodell’s invocation of family, particularly in the aftermath of Hamlin’s tragic injury, is useful here. Goodell’s statement attempts to reinforce the legitimacy of the very same league that has used up and thrown out scores of players like Hamlin, while at the same time insisting that the people who are most abundantly enriched by these structures are part of the same happy family as the players who bear the brunt of the sport’s pain. But in the players’ bonds with one another, you can find the potential for something different. There you can find 1,600 players who make up a community, one that doesn’t have to be co-opted into an expression of capital and ownership, but can be defined by the principles of common understanding and labor solidarity that undergird it. Adhere closely enough to this vision of sports, and you might find something with the potential to make good on those latent utopian kernels. To get there, you would first have to locate a future in which the NFL and the ownership class are accurately deemed expendable and done away with. And with that, we’re back to abolition. 

A common misconception about abolitionist thought is that it aims to subtract or destroy what exists, but the opposite is true. Author and scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore explained in 2019 that abolition is not about absence, but presence:

What the world will become already exists in fragments and pieces, experiments and possibilities. So those who feel in their gut deep anxiety that abolition means knock it all down, scorch the earth and start something new, let that go. Abolition is building the future from the present, in all of the ways we can.

What football could be in the future already exists in fragments. It exists in the relationships between players, the labor organizing that fights to earn those players a fair share, the disgust of former NFL fans, the legal battles for better healthcare for ex-players, the rare coverage that refuses to link someone almost dying on the field and a cool touchdown, and any refusal to accept maiming and death as the acceptable cost of playing ball. It existed even in the immediate aftermath of Hamlin’s collapse, when the coaches and players decided together to end the game while the league hesitated. Just the same, the future of collective, capacious care—apportioned not by the lottery of birth but through radical interdependence—already exists in fragments. It exists in indigenous and pre-colonial societies, modern policy projects, like Cuba’s recently passed family code law that redefines rights for children and grandparents, and in our powerful, wild imaginations. It exists in the fight for trans rights, liberation theology, Marxist feminism, the sex positivity movement, crèches and early kibbutzes. It exists in children’s emancipation, prison abolition, mutual aid, and resisting the status quo. It exists when we fashion new ways of being with and understanding one another, when we protest, when we find joy together.

Abolishing the NFL might seem almost as daunting as abolishing the family. Or maybe it’s the other way around. In the end, though, it’s all the same work.

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