Table of contents
Podcast S1 E6 | 27 min

Power Players: U.S. Football and French Rugby

23 Oct 2018
Sports have been tied to power as long as they’ve been played. For modern-day athletes, how does their power extend beyond the field?

Some athletes seem larger than life. They are revered and imitated—and they seemingly hold a lot of power. But whether they feel empowered in their lives and choices off the field depends on a variety of complex factors. We explore the experiences of black college football players in the U.S. and Fijian rugby players who migrate to play on teams in France to learn more.

Tracie Canada is a graduate student in the anthropology department at the University of Virginia. In 2017, her research project Tackling the Everyday: Race, Family, and Nation in Big-Time College Football was awarded a dissertation fieldwork grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation.

 Niko Besnier is a professor of cultural anthropology at the University of Amsterdam and has a research professorship at La Trobe University, Melbourne (Australia). He is also a fellow at Stanford University’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. Besnier is a co-author of The Anthropology of Sport: Bodies, Borders, Biopolitics.

Learn more about the study of sports at SAPIENS:

This episode of SAPIENS was produced by Cat Jaffee, edited by Matthew Simonson, and hosted by Esteban Gómez, with support from SAPIENS co-hosts Jen Shannon and Chip Colwell.

SAPIENS producers Paul Karolyi and Arielle Milkman, along with House of Pod intern Lucy Soucek, provided additional support. Cat Jaffee is our executive producer.

Fact-checking is by Christine Weeber, illustration is by David Williams, and all music is composed and produced by Matthew Simonson.

SAPIENS is part of the American Anthropological Association Podcast Library.

This is an editorially independent podcast funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation and produced by House of Pod.

Read a transcript of this episode

Chip Colwell: [00:00:00] Hi, there, this is Chip, one of your co-hosts with SAPIENS, the podcast that you’re tuning into right now. And if you’re enjoying what you’re hearing, I tell you how much it helps if you rate us wherever you’re listening, if you share your comments, if you pass along the podcast to your friends and family. Make sure you go and read Every week we have amazing, wonderful articles covering the whole breadth of the human experience. So keep listening and thank you. All right. On to this week’s episode. [00:00:29][29.0] 

Esteban Goméz: [00:00:34] Most of us know someone like this. You’re at dinner. You ask a question, but they don’t respond. They’re looking at you. Or maybe just over your shoulder, and suddenly they yell, [00:00:47][12.9] 

Fake fan: [00:00:47] “Whoa, what a catch! Wow, that was awesome!” [00:00:47][0.0] 

Esteban Goméz: [00:00:52] Or it’s Sunday, and you call them to make plans. [00:00:54][2.3] 

Fake fan: [00:00:57] “Hey, man. Hey, what are you doing tomorrow?” [00:00:58][0.5] 

Esteban Goméz: [00:00:59] They’re busy. Oh, well. Turns out the football season just started, and they’ll be busy every Sunday until February. But you could come over for the game if you promise to watch. [00:01:10][11.0] 

Fake fan: Sundays are about football. I’m sorry, man. [00:01:13] 

Caller: [00:01:14] All right. Talk to you later. [00:01:17][3.0] 

Esteban Goméz: [00:01:14] I know that person because I am that person. I love watching sports. I love watching sports so much that it’s hard for my wife to be in the same room. She doesn’t think sports bring me that much joy. And why would she? I’m constantly yelling at the TV. I was reading about the L.A. Dodgers on ESPN the other day, something I do somewhat obsessively, and I saw this new Nike ad. [00:01:39][24.6] 

Colin Kaepernick: [00:01:40] If people say your dreams are crazy, if they laugh at what you think you can do, good. Stay that way. Because what nonbelievers fail to understand is that calling a dream crazy is not an insult. It’s a compliment. [00:02:02][22.1] 

Esteban Goméz: [00:02:04] There’s Serena Williams playing tennis, LeBron James playing basketball, and the narrator is none other than Colin Kaepernick. [00:02:10][5.9] 

Colin Kaepernick: [00:02:10] Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything. [00:02:16][6.1] 

Esteban Goméz: [00:02:18] Kaepernick used to play quarterback in the National Football League. Then he started taking the knee during the national anthem to protest institutional racism and police violence. I’m guessing you’ve heard of him. [00:02:27][9.2] 

Donald Trump: [00:02:28] Your San Francisco quarterback, I’m sure nobody ever heard of him. NFL owners don’t want to pick him up because they don’t want to get a nasty tweet from Donald Trump. Do you believe that? [00:02:43][15.4] 

Esteban Goméz: [00:02:47] For many of us, athletes like Kaepernick are heroes. We watch them throw touchdown passes, we comment on social media when they hit home runs, and we cheer them on as they serve ace after ace. And yet Kaepernick isn’t playing football anymore. He used his platform to stand up for something, something he believed in. And no NFL team has hired him since. This makes me wonder, what does his story say about the power of athletes? Do they really have power in the first place? And if so, how far does that extend beyond the field? [00:03:19][32.1] 

All hosts: [00:03:20] INTRO [00:03:20][0.0] 

Esteban Goméz: [00:03:45] Long before TV broadcasts and Monday-night football, sports were wrapped up in issues of power. [00:03:49][4.2] 

Niko Besnier: [00:03:50] In early history, people engaged in activities like chariot racing or horseback racing. A lot of these activities involved power hierarchy in ways that was very overt. [00:04:03][13.5] 

Esteban Goméz: [00:04:04] Niko Besnier is a professor of Cultural Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam. He’s the kind of person who thinks about how power plays into almost everything. [00:04:12][7.7] 

Niko Besnier: [00:04:13] A beautiful example are ball games in ancient Mesoamerica, which began to rise in 3600 B.C. The ball courts are usually found in archaeological sites next to very important houses, which leads archaeologists to surmise that, in fact, the important people in the societies used ball games which were very bloody and very, very competitive to enhance their power. [00:04:46][33.0] 

Esteban Goméz: [00:04:47] Niko and his co-authors discussed ancient Mesoamerican ball games in their recent book, The Anthropology of Sport: Bodies, Borders, Biopolitics. [00:04:54][7.3] 

Niko Besnier: [00:04:54] They involve very hard rubber balls, which were so hard that they could actually kill people. There were two teams facing one another, and it was an issue of throwing the ball into a particular area very similar to the soccer games that we know today. The depiction of players that we have on ancient sites demonstrate that they were heavily attired with clothing, with padding, with helmets, precisely because it was potentially so dangerous. But nevertheless, there is also plenty of evidence that the losing team could lose their life in ritual sacrifice. [00:05:37][42.5] 

Esteban Goméz: [00:05:40] Yowzers! Even back then, players are believing in something and sacrificing everything. [00:05:44][3.8] 

Niko Besnier: [00:05:45] Of course, today, power is all over sport, but perhaps in more subtle and less visible, less overt ways. The most spectacular is probably the Olympics and other sport mega-events, which are performances, displays of power, of pomp, of national belonging. So they have all these meanings that are absolutely essential to the event and that are extremely ritualized. [00:06:14][28.6] 

Esteban Goméz: [00:06:15] Think about football, for example. Sunday afternoon, on the couch, chips in the bowl, the national anthem plays, and then … [00:06:23][7.8] 

Niko Besnier: [00:06:23] You have an absolute entanglement of capital, political power, and sport that is absolutely fundamental to the sport of football, which is obviously the most popular in, in this country. [00:06:43][20.3] 

Esteban Goméz: [00:06:44] And like every good ritual, everyone has their role. I sit on the couch. I spectate. I sometimes flip through my phone. Athletes show up and play the game. But before all of these roles are decided, there is a time when athletes are students, fans, and just young people trying to figure out their lives. [00:07:00][16.8] 

Tracie Canada: [00:07:01] College football is such a big part of a, a lot of things, but a big part of American culture, and it wouldn’t … [00:07:09][7.8] 

Esteban Goméz: [00:07:09] This is Tracie Canada. She’s an anthropologist at the University of Virginia. She’s focused on the experiences of black college football players in the U.S., and she’s enthusiastically, energetically, and deeply interested in details. It’s easy to see how she gets people to share about their lives. [00:07:24][15.3] 

Tracie Canada: [00:07:25] They think that I am a hyper, talkative, short, not very strong woman who for some reason is interested in football and interested in their lives, but they’re actually willing to talk to you. I think that they definitely have a lot to say about me. And I don’t mind it because I have a lot to say about them, so I’m OK with it being a reciprocal situation. [00:07:47][22.1] 

Esteban Goméz: [00:07:48] Tracie fell into this work during in her first year of undergrad at Duke. She was assigned to a dorm with mostly football players and she wanted to make friends, but she never saw any of them. It was always empty. [00:07:58][9.8] 

Tracie Canada: [00:07:59] But then, all of a sudden, they reappeared in the spring semester in January and it was because their schedules had been so intense that they hadn’t spent much time in the dorm. But when I started to hang out with them and when I met them and was around them more, I realized that they had a completely different perception on campus than the basketball players did. [00:08:17][17.9] 

Esteban Goméz: [00:08:17] That year, the basketball team was good. The football team, not so much. [00:08:21][4.6] 

Tracie Canada: [00:08:22] Their games weren’t well-attended. They were getting weird looks from other students on campus. I had classes with a couple of them, and I did see some, some weird interactions with professors that seemed to play into that whole stereotype of the only reason you’re here is because you play football. [00:08:38][15.8] 

Esteban Goméz: [00:08:39] Tracie didn’t really care that a team had more losses than wins that year. She found herself drawn to the players. What were their lives like, day to day? Why did they play? [00:08:47][7.6] 

Tracie Canada: [00:08:48] So there is an interesting player that I met back in October, and so it was in the beginning of this season, and the reason that I met him and that I interviewed him initially was because I was talking to one of his teammates who is of his same academic year. They’re both seniors, and he told me that I needed to talk to this person … [00:09:05][17.0] 

Esteban Goméz: [00:09:05] To protect his privacy, Tracie calls this student athlete, Anthony. [00:09:08][2.9] 

Tracie Canada: [00:09:09] So when I met Anthony, we decided to meet at one of the restaurants on his college campus, and when he first walked up to me, he was wearing a collared shirt and dress pants and dress shoes and glasses. [00:09:23][14.3] 

Esteban Goméz: [00:09:24] Tracie pays attention to clothes because in the community that she studies, she sees a lot of structured uniformity. When someone wears a unique bracelet or a different pair of shoes, it stands out, at least to her. And Anthony stood out. [00:09:38][13.6] 

Tracie Canada: [00:09:38] So when I started to talk to him, I kind of told him what my project was like and I just wanted him to tell me what his experiences were in college and with football and being a black man on campus. I just wanted to know what, what his life was like and we ended up talking for about two hours that first day, and what was so interesting about it when I went back and looked at my notes, is that for the first hour, he barely mentions football at all. [00:10:02][23.7] 

Esteban Goméz: [00:10:02] Instead, Anthony talked about everything else. [00:10:05][3.0] 

Tracie Canada: [00:10:06] His relationship with his parents, how he decided to go to the university that he attended, his relationship with his siblings, what he was interested in (he was a visual arts major, loves photography, and that’s what he wanted to pursue), and then, eventually, once I realized that he hadn’t talked too much about football, I was like, OK, tell me about football. Why do you play it? Like tell me a little bit about that. [00:10:24][18.1] 

Esteban Goméz: [00:10:25] And that’s when Tracie understood the paradox that is Anthony. [00:10:28][2.9] 

Tracie Canada: [00:10:28] His entire narrative was that, no, I don’t actually really like it. [00:10:32][3.3] 

Esteban Goméz: [00:10:32] But he still plays, and he’s good. Like, really good. [00:10:36][3.8] 

Tracie Canada: [00:10:36] The way that he described it to me was that, I do it for them, I do it 100 percent for them, and when I asked him to explain that, he said that he did it for his teammates because even though he didn’t want to go to the NFL, he understood all of that for himself, but that his teammates, some of them at least, are very interested in the NFL, want to make it to the next level. And he realized that because football is a team sport, his position was completely relevant to what his teammates were trying to pursue, and so he had to, he had to try. He had to try to do well, he had to put in 100 percent for them because if he slacked off in his position, it would negatively affect everybody else on the team but also because he had created such a deep relationship with these other teammates, with his specifically other teammates of his year and of his position group, which all happened to be black men, he had created such a relationship with them that he didn’t want to mess up their opportunity in any way, shape, or form, so he was going to commit as fully as he could to an experience that he wasn’t exactly invested in. [00:11:38][62.0] 

Esteban Goméz: [00:11:40] He risked injury to his body, alienation from his nonfootball-playing classmates; he endured the rigorous schedule and demands of being a student athlete; and he didn’t even like playing the sport, but he felt so strongly about supporting his teammates, he wanted to be the one that would help them get a shot at the NFL. [00:12:00] 

Tracie Canada: [00:12:01] Sometimes, it’s not actually about football; it’s about the other people that come into their lives or are already there. [00:12:05][5.1] 

Esteban Goméz: [00:12:06] Tracie has since studied black college football players on multiple campuses, and she’s observed some similarities. [00:12:10][4.3] 

Tracie Canada: [00:12:11] No matter where they are, no matter what type of institution they’re attending, they are within a system that kind of propagates these, this idea of particular norms and standards that are usually Euro-American in an outset. It could be the way that they essentially do the same thing in classrooms and have to kind of navigate these systems where they’re depending on the type of university, if they go to a predominantly white institution, they might be in class with only, they might be the only black person, not even athlete, not, not even anything else like that, just be the only black person in a classroom and then having to deal with that particular situation because usually it’s the first time that that has happened to them. And then, of course, on top of that, once we get to the real world, once we get to, to greater society, we have these large, strong, black men that, whose, whose bodies are completely valued on the football field because they have to be that way in order to play their positions, in order to, to be effective on the field. But then you take them outside of that space, and, I mean, there’s tons of evidence now that they’re seen as intimidating, they’re seen as potentially harmful, and that can have completely negative effects on their well-being, on their just lives in general because that can ensue violence in very particular ways. It can be state-sanctioned violence from the police. It can be just mundane violence from having to deal with microaggressions from other people that are, that are not comfortable with being in the same space as these people. I mean, the list really goes on and on of how, how different the experience can be for a black player primarily because of his body but also where he is in the country, where he is on a college campus. [00:13:52][100.5] 

Esteban Goméz: [00:13:53] Tracie describes many things black college football players must navigate off the field (poverty, institutional racism), but once they’re on the field, they can’t necessarily use this platform to demonstrate or speak out about what they experience. Like when Kaepernick started taking a knee during the national anthem. [00:14:08][14.6] 

Tracie Canada: [00:14:09] The colleges that I’ve been working with aren’t actually, the players aren’t actually on the field during the anthem. So right off the bat, that’s not something that they can necessarily participate in or at least on this, on the stage of the spectacle, they can’t participate in that because the cameras are not on them at the time of the anthem at the schools that I work with. But the ideas behind the protest, what he is standing for or kneeling for in the protest. Those are all, like, very relevant ideas to them, and it’s usually things that they were already thinking about and it’s things that they agree with. It’s just that they don’t have the platform to really represent it in that way. There’s more at stake for college players too. I’m not entirely convinced that the ones, that the players that I’ve talked to who are very openly supportive of it, I don’t know if they would actually participate in it anyway just because there is much more at stake for them because of the way that the money flows in college football. I mean NFL players are paid. And, yes, you can be cut from a team, you cannot, you can be sat on the bench for the entire game, you know, like there, there are ways that that can be worked into it. But in college, it’s a completely different scenario. [00:15:14][65.2] 

Esteban Goméz: [00:15:28] We watch these athletes as players. Our watching gives them power. And the support they give to each other helps them find community and belonging off the field. But what if it was a different context? Like athletes who play in countries other than their own, where questions of nationalism and patriotism are maybe a bit more vague. I took these questions back to Niko Besnier and his answer: Fijian rugby players. [00:15:57][28.6] 

Niko Besnier: [00:15:58] Men in that society are particularly well-disposed for certain positions on teams on rugby teams: They tend to be very large, very powerful; they run very fast. They’re really quite superb athletes in and of themselves. And they have been playing rugby for about a hundred years. It had been introduced to the country by mission schools and they, when I first originally conducted fieldwork in the ’70s and the ’80s, of course, rugby was just some form of entertainment. Most young men played it, villages were passionate about it. It really was part of the life of the society, but it was only entertainment. [00:16:39][41.5] 

Esteban Goméz: [00:16:40] Over time and in spite of the island’s isolation, he noticed that some families were starting to live very well. When he investigated further, he found that rugby was part of the answer. [00:16:50][9.4] 

Niko Besnier: [00:16:50] The islanders became quite aware of the possibility of migrating for rugby careers at the same time that the rugby world also became a very, very competitive capitalist system in which teams and clubs were competing for the next extraordinary star, and the clubs were willing to look for that star further and further afield. Until the 1970s, most clubs were pretty homogenous. They consisted of very lo—, people who had emanated from the local context. Suddenly in the 1990s, the teams became extremely diverse racially, socially … and made up of migrants. [00:17:37][46.5] 

Esteban Goméz: [00:17:38] Niko observed that more and more Fijians migrated to France to play rugby. They rose to prominent positions on their teams. They attracted more viewers to the sport in general. And they sent back money to family members in Fiji. [00:17:49][11.4] 

Niko Besnier: [00:17:50] That opened up an entire socioeconomic horizon that 10 years before or 20 years before was simply unimagined. It also created new forms of inequality between families, between the families that were lucky enough to have boys who were able to partake in this world system of sport and the families for which, for other reasons, were not able to. [00:18:19][28.5] 

Esteban Goméz: [00:18:19] Niko outlines a major shift in power. Yes, rugby allowed a few talented players to move to Europe and rise in fame and fortune and money, but it wasn’t that simple. [00:18:28][8.7] 

Niko Besnier: [00:18:28] So, in my book, I tell the story in the conclusion about a Fijian rugby player in France in the small town of Tarbes in rural France. His name is Isireli Temo, who had migrated, as many of his compatriots had done, to play for France and, unfortunately, was getting older. The body was not as productive as it used to be when he was younger. He was getting injured. He was sidelined by his team, by his club, which was already a third division club in France and, therefore, he probably was not making a huge amount of money. He had gone back home to Fiji and had found a family situation that was not very much to his liking, had come back, and a few weeks later, was found hanging from the ceiling of his home. [00:19:20][51.2] 

Esteban Goméz: [00:19:24] Niko’s work, done in partnership with doctoral students, is littered with tragic stories like this one. Whether it’s football players from Cameroon or Senegal, a runner from Kenya, they all struggle within systems where there’s only space for a few athletes at the top. A handful of the most talented who get a shot at fame, fortune, and stability for themselves and their families. [00:19:45][21.6] 

Niko Besnier: [00:19:46] What we found is entire generations of young men being absolutely convinced that they’re going to be the chosen ones, that they’re going to be the ones to make it in the sport and earn huge amounts of money through which they will be able to support the families, support the churches, the communities, the mosques, and so on. And this is having a transformative effect on the way in which generations of young men are reconfiguring the future as a migratory future and as an athletic future. [00:20:23][37.1] 

Esteban Goméz: [00:20:24] And although the experience of Fijians in France is starkly different than college football players in America, they both face incredible odds. Only 2 percent of Division 1 football players will make it to the NFL. Even then, once they make it to the top, once they’re on our screens, players are expected to behave in a certain way that can be somewhat isolating from their communities and their culture. … Where does power reside? And is it actually power if you don’t have control over how you use it? [00:21:02][37.2] 

Niko Besnier: [00:21:02] With respect to the trend of taking the knee, which we’ve witnessed in the last year or so, it’s very clear that what we’re talking about is an attempt by players who should be docile and do what they’re told to do, to break this. To use their own visibility, not just the owners and the elderly white men who own the teams being able to, to exert their power through the sport but also to use their own visibility to make a statement and that statement is a very, very strong one because of the millions of people who are watching, and the reaction predictably has been extremely violent. Trump’s reaction that the players should be fired is just the most visible example. So, what we are also witnessing is the fact that whenever there is protest, particularly by African-Americans and members of other minorities in sport, which is essentially one of the very few contexts in which members of minorities have a public visibility, is that whenever something like this happens, the reaction couches it in terms of patriotism. These people are unpatriotic and, therefore, are betraying the country. And I think this is where the entanglement of sport, capital, and politics becomes extremely interesting. So the intention, obviously, is for these players to protest the police brutality, the marginalization of African-Americans and other minorities in the current political arena, and the increased gulf between the haves and the have- nots. But then, this gets reinterpreted as a matter of patriotism and nationalism. [00:23:01][118.7] 

Esteban Goméz: [00:23:16] My childhood home in West Covina is 20 miles from Dodger Stadium. And you can hear the sounds of baseball all over my neighborhood. Play-by-play on the radio. Kids lining up for T-ball in the spring. The city is predominantly Mexican-American, and they love baseball, but it hasn’t always been that way. In the 1950s, a man named Walter O’Malley decided to move the Dodgers from Brooklyn to Los Angeles. They ended up building a new stadium, and O’Malley and the city wanted to build it in a neighborhood that happened to be primarily Mexican-American. The project displaced many people from their homes. It’s no wonder they hated baseball. No one watched it. No one went to the games. And no one wanted to play. For the Dodgers, that wasn’t good business. They began broadcasting their games in Spanish and eventually started a massive recruitment campaign for Hispanic players. Players like Fernando Valenzuela. He was from Etchohuaquila, Mexico, and his All-Star career inspired Mexican-Americans to embrace the Dodgers, embrace baseball, and in some ways, embrace being Mexican-American. Now, 30 years later, my hometown is known for producing Mexican-American baseball icons like Carlos Fisher, Larry Gonzalez, Jo-Jo Reyes, and Rio Ruiz. Fernando Valenzuela was the most significant Mexican-born player in baseball history. But I actually know very little about his personal life. I know he came to the U.S. in the 1980s. He was one of 12 children from a small town in Mexico, and he probably faced a lot of discrimination when he arrived. But I can only guess. [00:25:02][106.9] 

Esteban Goméz: [00:25:05] So when I think about players like Fernando, I keep coming back to our original question of power. Maybe the athletes don’t have as much power as we think. Because power doesn’t actually live in people, it’s in the social relationships that surround them. So if we want players to have power beyond the field, we’ve got to keep watching what happens even after they step out of the spotlight. [00:25:23][17.5] 

Chip Colwell: [00:25:27] This episode of SAPIENS was produced by Cat Jaffee, edited by Matthew Simonson, and hosted by Esteban Gómez with support from Jen Shannon and me, Chip Colwell. SAPIENS producers Paul Karolyi, Arielle Milkman, and House of Pod intern Lucy Soucek provided additional support. Cat Jaffee is our executive producer. Christine Weeber is our fact-checker. David Williams created our cover art; Matthew Simonson composed our theme and all the other music heard in this episode. The clip of President Trump was taken from a rally in Louisville, Kentucky on March 20, 2017. The Nike commercial was by Nike, Inc. Thanks this time to our guests Tracie Canada and Niko Besnier. Special thanks to Buffalo Wild Wings for letting us record excited football fans in their restaurant. Scott Simonson, Zach Surra, and David Kim were featured football fans. Also thanks to Danilyn Rutherford; Maugha Kenny; and the entire staff, board, and advisory council of the Wenner-Gren Foundation; Amanda Mascarelli, Daniel Salas, Christine Weeber, Aaron Brooks, Cay Leytham-Powell, and everyone at SAPIENS is part of the American Anthropological Association Podcast Library. This is an editorially independent podcast funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation and produced by House of Pod. See you next ti—whoa, whoa, wh—go, go, go, go, yes, yes, go, go, go, touchdown! Yes! Oh, wait, sorry, where was I? Oh, yeah, see you next time, fellow sapiens.


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