“I cannot be the first to wonder if what we see, when we see men in white take to a cricket field, is men imagining an environment of justice.”
-Joseph O’Neill, Netherland
In Lacanian psychoanalysis, fantasy plays a crucial role in structuring sexual relations. Phantasy (as theorists of the mind like to spell it) doesn’t create a barrier between us and so-called “real sex,” but is instead the necessary intermediary that makes real sex bearable. Phantasy gives body to a certain emptiness around which gender and pleasure revolve, transforming it from an alienating biological drive into something human and meaningful.
For about a decade, fantasy football did much the same for me when it came to sports. Until I began playing, I wasn’t much for physical competition. I was never good at sports and never entertained by them, and so I customarily viewed our whole sporting culture with disinterest at best, and more often with a kind of wimpy condescension.
But fantasy football changed that in ways I couldn’t have anticipated. The shared elation of a live snake draft; the sensible scoring structure that acts as a roadmap to novices and a scalpel to experts; the amusing introjection of superstar athletes into one’s own psyche; the diverse thrill of switching from game to game to watch my team; really, it was good fun. Fantasy football as a social practice struck a normative chord in me, and for years I derived genuine satisfaction from this vital approach to engaging with sports entertainment.
That process occurred in me while Barack Obama was president, and thus at a time when the country felt calm, consensus-bound, and mostly reasonable in its trajectory. I didn’t think much about politics back then. The catastrophic tenure of Bush 43 had come to an end, and once the financial crisis had been contained, we felt a clearing of the paranoiac mists that had so clouded the post-9/11 decade. In front of us there seemed to be a way forward, a road that would be bumpy at times, but essentially straight-and-narrow as it pointed toward troop withdrawals, universal healthcare, and racial harmony.
So why not kick back and enjoy some football?
A decade later, one can hardly exaggerate just how naïve, exotic, and long-lost that interval in American history appears in retrospect, and two years into the Trump presidency, I’m starting to not even recognize the person I was in 2008. As I lose touch with that person, the question becomes: who am I now?
The fact that Colin Kaepernick remains the focal point of cultural politics in the Trump era underscores the ideological function of football today. The NFL sells a weekly practicum in American exceptionalism—it’s our sport, enjoyed with an obdurate enthusiasm unheard-of outside our borders—and its aesthetics carry unmistakable connotations of American praiseworthiness. Wrapped up in football are values based in patriarchal exclusivity, fair competition, corn-fed social conservatism, and muscular nationalism. The secular ritual of the national anthem prefaces each game as a means of linking these values to our sense of national identity.
Marxist thinkers have understood ideology to be composed of socially necessary lies, those notions we must talk ourselves into for the sake of our common sanity in wrong society. Those big, friendly fibs are transmitted to us through culture industries like the NFL. We believe in them not only because we’re asked to believe them, but because they feel good too. And that is why Kaepernick’s activism has been so deliriously effective; because it intervenes at precisely that moment when the anthem’s irrational solemnity is supposed to be most soothing.
The sublime enjoyment Americans associate with football is thus coextensive with our belief in, or at minimum our expectations for, just society in America. Football is imagined to play out on an even playing field: players of diverse shapes, sizes, and colors assume varying positions and move in concert toward victory, each one equal in the eyes of the referee staff.
Isn’t it perfect, then, that the most successful NFL team of our time is the New England Patriots, a team known as much for its whiteness and cheating as its skill?
One year ago, the president told a crowd of supporters that he wanted NFL owners to punish Colin Kaepernick for reminding viewers just how far from justice the country still is today. “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he’s fired. He’s fired!”, the president said. At about the same time, the journalist and racial-justice activist Shaun King called for a boycott of the NFL, and after the season ended he was prepared to call the boycott a success. I watched the rest of that 2017-18 season, uncomfortably and with mounting guilt, and it wasn’t until the following May that I made my own decision. When the NFL announced its policy of fining players for kneeling, I realized that it was time to say goodbye to this sport and the ideological production it facilitates.
We’re well into the 2018-19 season now, and I’m still musing over my decision. On a personal level, I do feel left out as my friends discuss their fantasy teams and watch games together. And on a political level, I’m less than enthusiastic about the efficacy of a boycott to begin with. It’s true that consumers have some remote influence over the conduct of corporations; the profit motive is a two-way street, in a Keynesian sense. But this “voting with your dollar” business is in reality quite impotent; it’s a marketized approach to politics, one that reduces the project of social justice to a set of individual purchasing decisions. It’s an unsatisfactory strategy because it puts the onus on the individual, rather than the collective, to change society.
And so I feel scant pride in my puny boycott, its neoliberal underpinnings matched by its ineffectiveness. My lonely crusade is merely the woke mirror image of those racists now mutilating their Nikes. And one need only look to the soaring stock prices of that company—and consider the rightward flow of those profits—to understand that my taking a knee this season poses no genuine threat to capitalism or the culture industries that support it.
But there’s another reason to quit fantasy football and the NFL in the Trump era. And that’s because it’s not fun anymore. In big and small ways, life doesn’t feel anything like it did in 2008. Assuming we survive this presidency and heal the pain of it one day, I’m convinced we’ll look back on these awful years and consider how and in what manner they changed us.
Today there is a liberal fantasy, epitomized by Frank Bruni’s foolish op-ed in the New York Times about pasta, that one’s sense of self can and should remain unbroken in a historical moment like this. Privileged liberals want to believe that the most important thing we can do is remember who we are and who we have been, and then hang onto that for dear life.
But no—I’m convinced of the opposite. We must acknowledge who we have been as a country, but it’s time to stop celebrating it on television. In whatever way we choose, we should spend time reforming our habits, our prejudices, our defense mechanisms, our petty pleasures, and our articles of faith. We should live our personal lives in a way that feels entirely new because that is how we’ll open up the space to imagine an authentically new society.
I don’t judge you if you’re watching football this season. By all means, enjoy it. But I hope you’re changing in other ways. Because if ideology is what we call the fantasies that structure social reality, it should be obvious that those fantasies are now crumbling. To return to my analogy from Lacan, this is precisely the difficulty with fantasy—it’s so fragile.
Tom Syverson is a writer living in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter.