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Sports

Kramer: End the NFL slave trade

| Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Atop the highest snow bank on my elementary school playground, my legs swung aimlessly beneath me as I peered over the frozen tundra. Albeit a small contribution to my vantage point, I considered the pile uplifting, mountainous, illuminative of the sea of white that enveloped the playground with a bone-chilling flood. The ledge gave me a feeling of omniscience, observing all of the school drama, conflict and energy from a comfortable distance.

Here, I unknowingly digested my first inherently racist comment of memory.

The Minnesota winter invaded the early days of December with full force that year, and fittingly so: Jack Frost loves to make an unforgettable (and often unbearable) entrance. Despite the miserable winds and swirling blizzards, kids in my hometown saw the first sign of massive snowfall as a blessing.

At the start of each winter, my school’s beloved teacher and former college football player crafted an all-inclusive snow football bracket for any willing — and I’ll say bold — participants. Spirited students would strap on their tightest pair of boots for the daily six-on-six contest, one that became known as the Ice Bowl.

A mediocre athlete at heart, I gladly joined the ranks. Perhaps I enjoyed watching the matchups even more, free from the soggy socks and soaked pants that inevitably came with a grueling win. On one of my cherished off days, I scaled my prized pile and joined a scrawny white kid from a nearby neighborhood. The game at hand decided my next opponent, so I scouted the receivers during the brief lapses between countless falls into the knee-high snow.

Pointing out one of the black kids on the field, the scrawny boy turned to me and sighed. “I just love to watch those quick, sweaty black guys,” he said. At this, he erupted into a cackle, slid down to ground zero from his seat, and walked away.

While this comment dumbfounded me, I neglected to make much of it. Why mention sweat during maybe the coldest day of the year? The answer surfaced alongside my maturity: clearly he projected a long-standing idea of race in his household without knowing any better. He adopted a crooked reflection of “how I was raised” with a dismissive laugh.

Stories like this rewrite themselves to the point of dry monotony, yet they go largely unnoticed throughout our childhood. Whether inadvertent or conscious, Americans express a strange obsession with sweating, bulging, tested and ultimately exhausted black bodies beneath NFL pads. Helmets obscure the identities of incredible athletes when this on-field objectification takes place.

This addictive issue primarily takes root in the NFL Combine, an event lacking any substantial economic benefit for the league, but nevertheless showcasing black bodies with an unmatched level of perversion. Black prospects willingly submit to the demands of predominantly white owners, scouts and doctors: stripping to tight, minimalist clothing, performing taxing physical tasks and presenting their physique during the weigh-in. The physical examination delights the white onlookers as they gladly gather insight for their next acquisition through the NFL Draft.

The auction block of the chattel slave era undoubtedly comes to mind here. The parallel is in no way an original one, but the fact that Combine protocol withstands racial backlash year after year makes the subjection of black athletes to this type of treatment a pressing matter for the league.

With the first wave of winter storms upon us, I find myself regretting my encounter with the scrawny white kid. Not once did I ask him to explain himself. Not once did I seek understanding on how someone so young could say something so outlandish.

Maybe I didn’t know any better, but the NFL certainly does.

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