It may seem bizarre to some, but in fact as an archetypal British stereotype I actually have a deep affinity for some aspects of American sport. For instance, my typically-British craving for reliable disappointment led to me defecting from cautious support of the Boston Red Sox when they shamelessly won the baseball World Series in 2004 to the Chicago Cubs, whose implaccable and relentless pursuit of an losing streak has long since combined a grim sense of Calvinist doom familiar to any Scot along with the assumption of an epic narrative of nemesis from Greek tragedy. Then consider the undeniable resonances between cricket and baseball, particularly the long spells of induced boredom which encourage a mantric, zen-like meditative response from the spectators, and I think it can safely be asserted that there are some little-explored but substantive connections between American sport and the cliched British national character.
This, however, does not apply to American football which, to anyone who has experienced a game of rugby, appears to be a fossilised and disarticulated variant of rugby played by overpaid, overweight steroid-addicts swaddled in excessive protective armour pausing every ten seconds of actual gameplay to permit several minutes of inane commentary and longer periods of comically overblown advertising.
I exaggerate to make the point. Slightly. Nonetheless, it is almost impossible to escape the commentary on the Superbowl, even when you don’t actually watch it. Thus I find myself compelled to respond to reports of Beyoncé’s performance of a Black Power-inspired song and dance routine at this year’s Superbowl. My credentials to conduct this critique are, of course unimpeachable. As a self-appointed champion of liberal history, my sense of entitlement is boundless. As a middle-aged bourgeois white male, my authority to comment upon African-American sectional politics is clearly unchallengeable.
Just in case that isn’t enough, I’m not the only bourgeois white dilettante sounding off over the issue. And, no, I’m not referring to Coldplay’s Chris Martin whingeing about being upstaged by Beyoncé (although I’d like to think he was). Here’s Barbara Ellen in The Guardian, for example, pre-empting my critique by observing that ‘… sneering at the mode of protest rather than examining what the protest is about is an old method of silencing and cowing.’
Allow me to demonstrate that, in my case at least, sneering at the ‘protest’ is a valid consequence of a comparative analysis of Black Power protests at sporting events. Let’s take the archetypal example, Tommie Smith and John Carlos making Black Power salutes on the winner’s podium at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.
I agree with the essential objectives of the Olympic Project for Human Rights which Smith and Carlos protested for (alongside their fellow medallist, Australian Peter Norman), but more importantly I respect the gesture as a valid gesture of political protest, while Beyonce’s performance was nothing of the sort.
Smith and Carlos were directly affected by the issue they were protesting about. They suffered personal consequences, in terms of missing opportunities for sponsorship or lucrative employment in football teams which would otherwise have followed Olympic sprinting success. Finally, they earned the right to make it by the remorseless meritocracy involved in winning the world’s most prestigious athletic competition against the best competition in the word. Standing on that podium as a medallist meant running two hundred metres, at altitude, in a time between nineteen-point-eight and twenty-point-one seconds. Smith and Carlos did that, thereby succeeding in one of the few arenas where racial prejudice could be openly and undeniably defeated by individual achievement. They earned the right to protest on the basis of that, never mind anything else.
By contrast, Beyoncé is a rich, talented entertainer whose platform for her performance comes from her celebrity status and whose reward will secured in terms of increased record sales for the song she performed and promoted at the show (possibly doubling sales, according to previous experience of performers at the half-time show).
All of which means that Beyonce’s attempt at gesture politics remains a straightforward exercise in commercial self-promotion, while Smith and Carlos made a genuine, and warranted, political protest. And When it comes to ‘sneering’ at commercial self-promotion to mass television audiences at American sporting events on that basis, don’t take it from a whitey on the moon like me. Here’s Gil Scott-Heron, poet and cultural spokesman for Black Power on the subject in ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’:
You will not be able to stay home, brother
You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out
You will not be able to lose yourself on skag
And skip out for beer during commercials
Because the revolution will not be televised