Virtue Signaling and Secular Redemption

Ever since former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began kneeling before preseason games in 2016, taking a knee in protest has become all the rage among the self-styled athletic elite. Spreading out from Kaepernick’s banal act of “defiance,” more and more players on more and more teams began refusing to stand for the playing of the national anthem. The madness has now reached such a pitch that team coaches—the Steelers’ Mike Tomlin, for example—and even team owners—such as the Cowboys’ Jerry Jones—are showing ingratitude toward the very nation that has enriched them. Players from awful inner city neighborhoods are protesting the police presence which keeps those places from descending into full chaos—and are also destroying the league that was their one ticket out of poverty.

In all of this, they are cheered on by their echo chambers in academia and the media, the semi-literate millionaire gladiators who staff the phalanxes of Sunday bloodsport, along with their keepers, have suddenly entered the pantheon of secular saints, heroes of political correctness who have found a way to regurgitate the cant of the liberal guardians without uttering a single word. As anyone could have predicted, ESPN—the sports-themed social justice clearinghouse whose anchoress Jemele Hill recently called Donald Trump a “white supremacist,”—has been supportive of the kneelers. The returning Apollo 11 astronauts were met with less fanfare than the linemen and tight ends genuflecting while our nation’s song is played.

But kneeling and pigskins were not always looked upon with such favor by the arbiters in the institutional politburo. Just last month, for example, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that former high school football coach Joseph Kennedy, whose pregame practice included kneeling at midfield in silent prayer and who was fired when he refused to stop praying, had no First Amendment grounds to sue for reinstatement. As reported in the Washington Examiner, the court found that Coach Kennedy “took advantage of his position to press his particular views upon the impressionable and captive minds before him.”

And then there was Tim Tebow. As an undergraduate quarterback at the University of Florida and then a player in the NFL, Tebow used to kneel in prayerful thanksgiving for touchdowns. He was roundly mocked by the media for this, subjected to intense ridicule for daring to express his faith in the public square. Tebow’s good nature allowed the scorn to roll off his back, but for many his treatment by the gods of broadcasting was a wake-up call. The term “post-Christian America” became a virtual slogan for our first post-Christian president, but even before it caught on the PC pillorying of Tim Tebow alerted us to the hard shifting of the cultural winds. Really and truly, the Christian hawsers anchoring the ship of the United States were being heaved back into the deep at lightning speed.

Long before Tim Tebow was born, of course, the takeover of America’s institutions by cultural Marxists and dyed-in-the-wool atheistic communists was well underway. By now, no one should be surprised to hear that most mainline churches are in full, fawning thrall to homosexual “marriage,” for instance. Recently, to take just one example, Fr. James Martin, a Jesuit who has made a career out of bending his own knee to the idols of the age, published a book which surely charts a course toward the homosexualization of even the Catholic Church. But it isn’t just churches. Academia, print media, broadcast media, the armed forces, the courts, the intelligence services, the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, the medical profession, the public schools, charities, large corporations, and every last labor union in the country—all have been swamped by politics. And politics, for the cultural Marxists, is a way of freezing natural human interaction and paralyzing resistance to infiltration. The strategy has worked everywhere it has been tried.

Except, until now, in sports. While some athletes have been outspoken about their political views, the tradition until just yesterday was for players to keep their politics part of their private lives. We knew Michael Jordan was friends with Bill Clinton and we knew Mike Tyson was a supporter of Donald Trump. We knew Tom Brady leaned right and Ray Lewis leaned left. But we didn’t care. Politics and sports were anathema, we thought. We had given up on religion and on shared moral tenets, but Sundays (there is no small irony in this) were days when we could put our differences aside and come together as one.

This began to change several years ago with the advent of virtue signaling. Virtue signaling is the practice, now endemic in the United States, of letting everyone know that you embrace the right views, hold the right opinions, and vote for the right candidates. (And by “right” here, I of course mean “left.”) Akin to Thorstein Veblen’s conspicuous consumption, virtue signaling is a typically American way of showing off one’s newfangled achievements to one’s equally clueless neighbors. Virtue signaling requires no thought and no investment of either time or reputation. All that is necessary is to parrot what one hears on TV. It is as simple as that.

One may have supposed that football, of all activities, would have been safe from the encroachments of virtue signaling, however. Once held up by Progressive champion Teddy Roosevelt as the perfect training for young men to fight imperialist wars, football has always been violent barbarism. Beyond considerable athletic prowess and the ability to strategize and remember plays, it requires no formal education of its practitioners. It is, in fact, horribly detrimental to the cognitive abilities of those who play it. But it is precisely for this reason that football, once the apolitical axis of shared American cultural life, lay open to political takeover after all.

It is no coincidence that the advent of virtue signaling in football was simultaneous with the revelations—leaks at first, but now a horrifying torrent—that repeated concussive hits were causing devastating, debilitating brain damage in football players at all levels. The NFL, which has some of the most powerful and highest-paid lawyers on the planet, denied it all at first. But then one after another player came forward with the same story. Some players committed suicide. Others—or their widows—filed suit. The NFL began to look monstrous even in the eyes of the proletariat, which formed its most loyal revenue base. The NFL had a public relations problem. What to do?

The answer was as brilliant as it was shrewd. The NFL, virtually overnight, transformed itself from a league of pile-driving body blows and periodic maimings (all of which were played back in slow motion as the ratings numbers climbed) to a troupe of pink-clad activists who just happened to play a ball game but whose real purpose was “raising awareness” about “women’s issues.” And it was not to be chalked up in the debit column, either, that the new “woman friendly” NFL served to distract attention from Adam “Pacman” Jones, Adrian Peterson, Brandon Marshall, Johnny Manziel, Daryl Washington, and the dozens of other NFL players who have been either accused or convicted of violence or sexual assault against females. Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers quarterback who so boldly sat out the anthem before last Sunday’s game, has twice been accused of sexual assault. He is now, naturally, a secular hero for showing contempt for the country whose criminal justice system allowed him twice to walk free.

The NFL’s new virtue signaling strategy worked like a charm. Female viewership soared, the league was able to appear humanitarian (despite the fact that its employees were being beaten to senseless pulps each weekend), and, for once, the players were able to give the world a peek into their political views. Was anyone surprised that an organization devoted to wanton violence for money would team up with the Susan G. Komen outfit, which funds precisely the same activity with its support for Planned Parenthood? But it doesn’t matter, because Planned Parenthood uses Susan G. Komen for cover, too. Everyone likes to signal their own virtue. Football players and coaches are hardly the exception.

It was only natural that, eventually, someone should take the virtue signaling to the next level and inject real, unmistakable politics into the game. Enter Colin Kaepernick. Now infamous as the little free agent who started this big war, Kaepernick took cues from his radical Muslim girlfriend and turned the NFL into a stage for his own self-righteousness. The temptation must have been almost irresistible. He knew he would be crowned with glory on SportsCenter the next morning. He knew the New York Times and the Washington Post would fall all over themselves to gild him with accolades. The NFL—and the sports world in general—was the Great White Whale, the last frontier of non-politics in a country now overrun with the stuff. All it took was a flash of insight to realize that the citadel was undefended and all the soldiers in the keep had long since switched sides.

What does this mean for the country? It was never any secret that the American elite hate the United States. We knew that before Jane Fonda mounted her first anti-aircraft gun in North Vietnam. But there is a much larger import to the genuflecting of the barbarians. Just as Christians realized ten years ago, during the mocking of Tim Tebow, that America was not a Christian nation anymore, Americans—even non-religious Americans—with any shred of patriotism left now realize that America isn’t an American nation anymore. We are a nation of virtue signalers. We bow to no God, and certainly to no flag or higher calling. We bedeck ourselves with the rainbow hues and brightly colored bows of our raised awareness, mechanically mimic the lessons we get from all sides from the cultural Marxists, and reverently bend our knees to our own virtue, to our own gloriously virtuous selves—right there on the big screen, for all the world to see.

But this very visibility may prove to be the NFL’s undoing. How much scrutiny will the private lives of its players and owners bear? As the Novena for the Seven Gifts of the Holy Ghost has it:

If Thou take Thy grace away, nothing pure in man will stay, all turn’d to ill.

Like the rest of us, the NFL may want to think twice before venerating its own piety in public. But a larger problem remains: in a post-Christian, post-patriotic, and now, probably, post-football America, what is left to hold us all together?

Editor’s note: Pictured above, Detroit Lions players take a knee during the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Atlanta Falcons in Detroit, Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017. (Photo credit: Paul Sancya | AP Images)

Jason Morgan

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Jason Morgan earned his doctorate in history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2016 and is currently teaching at Reitaku University in Japan. He studied East Asian history and languages at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga (BA), University of Nagoya in Japan, and University of Hawai'i-Mānoa (MA). His reviews, essays, and translations have appeared in Modern Age, Metamorphoses, Japan Review, Education About Asia, Human Life Review, University Bookman and elsewhere.

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