The​ Netflix series Colin in Black and White, about the early life of the NFL quarterback and civil rights activist Colin Kaepernick, begins by comparing American football to slavery. We are shown a group of Black football players having their bodies prodded and measured by white coaches, as they decide who fits the bill and who gets tossed on the scrapheap. Two minutes in, the actors morph from Lycra-clad athletes into men in rags and chains, being prodded, measured and commodified by white traders at a slave market. It is a theme that has been taken up by the former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores, who is suing the NFL for discrimination after discovering that he was the token Black candidate when interviewed for coaching roles that had already been decided for white applicants. The lawsuit points out that although more than two-thirds of the players in the league are Black, there is only one Black head coach among the 32 teams, and none has a Black owner. ‘In certain critical ways,’ Flores says, ‘the NFL is racially segregated and is run much like a plantation.’

The podcaster Joe Rogan, who is white, has tried to ridicule this analogy. He called the opening sequence of Colin in Black and White the ‘dumbest comparison’ he’d ever heard. How could it be slavery when the players work their whole lives to get into the NFL, not to escape from it? The sport promises great wealth and privilege to the lucky few who pass the test. What’s enslaving about that? Kaepernick is anything but dumb, but his series (he is the narrator and co-producer) doesn’t directly address this question. He wants to tell a different story.

Kaepernick emerged as a prodigiously talented high school athlete, who lived a comfortable life in California with his adoptive white parents. He struggled with the dissonance between the security of his home life and the discrimination he experienced out in the world as a young Black man. But he also struggled with the choices he faced as someone who could make an outlandish living in a variety of different sports. His coaches, parents and friends all encouraged him to play professional baseball. He was one of the top-rated young pitchers in the country, and the Chicago Cubs offered him a lucrative contract when he was in college. But there was a problem: all Kaepernick ever wanted to do was play football.

The NFL may be a slave system, but as Kaepernick saw it, baseball was just as bad and in some ways worse. It is a sport that has bought into its own mythology. The young Kaepernick was constantly being reminded that baseball must be played in the true spirit of the game, with a deference to tradition and gentlemanly values. But he knew the sport’s real history. While claiming to be pathbreakers for integration, baseball owners and administrators routinely exploited Black players, excluded them, and deprived them of opportunities. Gentlemanliness is another word for discrimination. No one could mistake American football for a gentlemanly business. Neither could they miss its unambiguous racial hierarchy. In that sense, the NFL wears its colours on its sleeve. Black players do most of the grunt work; white players, coaches and owners run the show.

The significance of Kaepernick’s story isn’t simply that he wanted to be a football player. He was determined to make it as a quarterback. Had he become a baseball pitcher, it might have made him rich and famous, but it wouldn’t have changed anything. Many pitchers are Black, and pitchers don’t have anything like the same authority as quarterbacks (they are part of a roster and work entirely at the behest of their coaches). When Kaepernick was growing up, quarterbacks were overwhelmingly white. Black NFL players caught the ball, ran with the ball, and blocked. But white coaches thought you needed a white guy to throw the ball. The quarterback isn’t just the beating heart of an American football team: he is also meant to be the thinker, capable of making split-second decisions under intense pressure. White coaches, channelling decades of prejudice, were loath to entrust that sort of responsibility to even the most talented Black players.

Kaepernick was an exceptionally talented quarterback but he faced years of rejection because he didn’t look the part. He was bombarded with offers of baseball scholarships; no one wanted him for their football team. Finally, the University of Nevada gave him his chance. He turned out to be not just the best quarterback in Nevada’s history, but one of the best to play college football anywhere. In 2011 he was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers. He led his team to the Super Bowl in his first season as starting quarterback. After that, things got trickier. Injuries and patchy form meant Kaepernick lost his place in the 2015 season, though he won it back a year later. That was the season when he began his protests against police brutality by choosing to kneel during the national anthem before each 49ers game. In the wake of the controversy that followed – stoked by, among others, Donald Trump – the 49ers released him from his contract. Despite being one of the most successful quarterbacks in the league, and still aged only 29, no other team would sign him. He hasn’t played since.

Does Kaepernick’s story answer Rogan’s question? Yes and no. Yes, in that his struggle to play football on his own terms has always been a struggle against the racial hierarchy of the sport. No, because a nagging question remains: given all this, why does he love football so? He treats it as though it were a pure sport corrupted by prejudice. But it’s not. Even strip away the racism and it’s still in many ways a horror show. It is gladiatorial, intensely violent and often grotesque. If the quarterback is spared the worst of the violence, it’s only because other players – most of them Black – are risking terrible physical damage to protect him. The players’ bodies are weapons that get used up and spat out for the entertainment of baying fans. When he began his campaign of taking the knee, Kaepernick announced that what he was doing was protesting against ‘organised brutality’. But then he went out on the field and orchestrated some organised brutality himself.

This anomaly is something that many American football fans will understand. I recognise it because I have come to love the game too. I probably get more pleasure from watching the NFL than any other sport. But I know that it’s a monstrous business. American football is rife with drug abuse, mainly steroids, which the players use to mask injury and pain, and then pay the price afterwards: anxiety, depression, paranoia. The helmets the players wear do not protect them from concussion. Instead, because helmets make it possible to sustain multiple head collisions, concussion is an occupational hazard with profoundly dangerous long-term consequences, including a higher incidence of mental health problems among former professionals. And teams cheat. Flores’s lawsuit against the NFL states that he was sacked after he refused to throw games to secure the Dolphins an advantage in the following season’s draft (teams that do badly one year get to pick the better college players the next). Owners treat the sport like a cash machine, when they are not using it to extort large sums of money from taxpayers for the upkeep of their stadiums. In the mid 1990s Mike Brown, the owner of the Cincinnati Bengals, one of this year’s Super Bowl finalists, threatened to move the team away from Cincinnati if the taxpayers of Hamilton County didn’t pick up the tab for improved facilities. The deal that followed has so far cost the county nearly $1 billion. Brown, the son of a football coach, is estimated to be worth around $1 billion too.

So what is the appeal? All I can say is that American football is a sport of peerless drama and surprising beauty. The best plays are balletic as well as brutal, and endlessly rewatchable. The tension in a close game is often exquisite. The uniforms, the choreography and the spectacle do not sanitise the violence. But they do keep it at a safe distance from the viewer. Only cinematic representations of the sport – such as Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday – come close to showing how unpleasant it really is down in the trenches. Perhaps, deep down, the pull is that we enjoy the violence. But I tend to look away when the bodies get broken.

The most enjoyable sports show currently on TV is called RedZone, which provides seven hours of uninterrupted NFL coverage each Sunday during the regular season. It has all the games in real time and cuts quickfire from one to the next to bring the most exciting action. There is never a dull moment. But RedZone also swiftly cuts away from chaos – players get injured, often horribly, they go down, they don’t get up – and there is always another game to go to. The bad news never stays news for long.

In recent years, however, the bad news about American football has kept coming, from the racism to the violence, and occasionally it threatens to overwhelm the sport altogether. Malcolm Gladwell has long argued that college football should be banned, because of the indisputable evidence of a link between concussion and suicide. He compares the sport to dogfighting. The incidence of domestic violence among NFL players is shockingly high, and is a constant backdrop to the violence on the field. Corruption remains rife. Sports Illustrated described the scene in one owner’s box at an NFL game as ‘an incestuous power-gaggle that belonged in a Russian novel or a Byzantine brothel’. Despite paying lip-service to the endless controversies that swirl around the game, the NFL has done nothing serious to tackle them. It still treats its players as so many disposable commodities. And we the viewers keep coming back for more.

This year’s Super Bowl, which took place on 13 February between the Cincinnati Bengals and the LA Rams, was the most viewed in five years, with more than 112 million people watching in the US alone. A lot of the talk beforehand concerned the face-off between the two quarterbacks, Matthew Stafford of the Rams, a veteran who had never won the big prize, and Joe Burrow of the Bengals, who only began playing professionally in 2020 and has helped turn his team from perennial losers into potential champions. Stafford came out on top, but Burrow looks like he might be the future of the sport. Both men are white. There are many more Black quarterbacks in the league than there used to be – Kaepernick broke new ground in that respect – but this year’s showpiece seemed something of a throwback. The Guardian described Burrow as belonging in the storied tradition of NFL quarterbacks stretching through Tom Brady to Dan Marino to Joe Montana to Joe Namath. They were all white too. The only allusion to Colin Kaepernick at the Super Bowl came during the half-time show, when the rapper Eminem took the knee during a medley of classic hip hop from the likes of Dr Dre, Snoop Dogg and Mary J. Blige. Eminem, alone among his fellow performers, is white.

The game was a good one, if not a classic. The Rams came back to win it at the last, in moments of high drama. At the end the Rams star Taylor Rapp got down on one knee (no pun intended) to propose to his girlfriend, in front of his celebrating teammates and adoring fans. All in all, it was a lot of fun. American football remains a compelling spectacle. It is scandalous, hypocritical, mesmerising, impossible to justify, impossible to look away from – much like the country whose national sport it has now, unequivocally, become. Kaepernick was right: it’s not about baseball anymore.

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