What will (American) Football do?

by Harry on July 19, 2020

As I’ve probably made clear, I have no knowledge of or interest in any other sport than cricket (well… there’s also softball, obviously). Professional cricket has now restarted in both the UK and in South Africa. In South Africa, yesterday, the first match opened to scenes of the entire playing and management personnel taking a knee in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Here are some pictures:

The story behind this decision, which has a slightly ugly element to it, is told here.

There’s nothing ugly really about the story behind how professional cricket opened in England. From what I gather, members of the West Indies team, and the West Indies authorities, wanted to do something to display their opposition to racism, and the England team and authorities, a la Peter Norman, took their lead. The pictures are quite moving (the footage is more moving, and I’d guess you can find it easily).

More striking, though, than what has happened on the field, has been what Sky (and to be fair all the other cricket coverage I follow which, I emphasize, is pretty much all the mainstream UK coverage that is available, we’re not talking about alternative-y, leftwing, cricket coverage) has done. All the sky commentators and reporters have been wearing BLM badges as part of their standard issue uniform. All of them. And during the first day of the first match, Sky screened a remarkable piece about institutionalised racism with Sir Michael Holding and Ebony Rainford-Brent (In the excellent, and also moving, follow-up discussion Holding subsequently says that Rainford-Brent was more emotional than he was speaking to camera, but watch it yourself: although I, personally, found Rainford-Brent’s testimony extremely moving, Holding is just as emotional. Its just a different emotion). ESPNcricinfo, TMS, and even the podcast of associated with The Cricketer magazine have focused supportively on anti-racist themes and, in particular, the ways in which cricket is racist (the latest issue of The Cricketer is a special issue focused on this).

If you know the cricket world none of this is especially surprising. Cricket is a multi-racial, multi-national, cross-class sport; outside of India there are no big, rich, owners (and inside India, the big, rich, owners, tend not to be white); certainly the governing authorities tend to be conservative about cricket, but the former players who are influential tend to be urbane, cosmopolitan, and liberal (and, several, like Holding, are former West Indies players, because for 15 years the West Indies were the best team in history). England’s captain is known for his rebuke to a sledger who called him gay — “there’s nothing wrong with being gay”, and while England’s current vice-captain was, I think, lucky not to be convicted of an assault a couple of years ago, it is notable that the fight he got into was against homophobes who had been tormenting a gay couple. And, of course, it was cricket that prompted the ban on sporting links with apartheid South Africa. Even Sir Ian Botham (who, quite bizarrely, is reputed to be in line for a peerage because of his support for Brexit) was an unambiguous anti-racist during his playing days (I assume he still is, but it really mattered in the late 70’s and early 80’s, when anti-racism was widely considered to be the preserve of the looney left, that a beefy, macho, national and clearly politically conservative sporting hero was articulately anti-racist).

So I’m very curious what American Football do if/when it opens up in the Fall. Almost, though not quite, curious enough to pay attention when it happens.



Adam Roberts 07.19.20 at 2:52 pm

Like you I’ve been both surprised and impressed by how all-in UK sports coverage has been where BLM is concerned. Match of the Day, the BBC round-up football show, not only goes out of its way to include footage of players kneeling at the beginning of each match (even though it only shows highlights) but also steps away from sports-specific discussion to include things like Dion Dublin, former Cambridge United/England player, now commentator/pundit, talking directly about eg getting called a “black bastard” when he’s out in the supermarket doing his shopping. Given that Dublin is both a very charming guy, and has carved out a second career presenting OAP-friendly daytime telly, him relating this kind of thing is more shocking than it might otherwise be.


NomadUK 07.19.20 at 3:37 pm

What will American football do? Die a horrible death, one hopes.


Graham D Shevlin 07.19.20 at 4:14 pm

Here in the USA, the NFL is still whistling a merry tune about running a full season. I do not think this will happen. I am pretty sure that a number of teams will find their players and coaching and support staffs felled by Covid and they will not be able to play.
Football is not so much a contact support as a collision sport. It is a great Covid incubator.


David Rickard 07.19.20 at 5:19 pm

What will American football do? Make public noises in support of BLM and anti-racism, while quietly benching/firing any player who engages in displays such as these.

Also too: Which American wingnut politician will be first to accuse these Commonwealth cricket players of disrespecting the American flag? My money’s on Lindsey Graham.


Slanted Answer 07.20.20 at 12:19 am

Speculation online is that they are going to be playing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (the Black National Anthem) before Week 1 games. There’s also some talk about them putting the names of police brutality victims on some jerseys or helmets. I have no idea if any of this is true or not. No word that I can find about what they plan to do about Colin Kaepernick.


CHETAN R MURTHY 07.20.20 at 12:25 am

IIUC, the NFL has made it clear to players that either they play, or their contracts are voided. Players will play, and some will sicken, and some will be crippled, and some will die. Some of the off-field workers will sicken/be-crippled/die. Eventually the season will be cancelled. And this is all OK.

Thorstein Veblen would look at all this, I would hope, and point out that a society that cannot deliver public health as a public good, has no business creating “sports” jobs. Priorities ought to count for something. Ah, well.


derrida derider 07.20.20 at 12:46 am

Football is not so much a contact support as a collision sport. It is a great Covid incubator.

The other collision sports (rugby union and league) have been struggling to get through their season in the southern hemisphere winter.

Except in New Zealand, a nation of exceptionally pragmatic and balanced people who immediately transform into weirdly fanatical warriors whenever rugby is mentioned. They have so far effectively eliminated covid by early and drastic methods (probably because they saw the threat to rugby). They’ve been playing to capacity crowds.

As an Australian I really fear the thrashings we are going to get from them when the trans-Tasman matches do begin. They’re very tough for our guys to beat at the best of times, but when we have had no match practice for many months …


TheSophist 07.20.20 at 3:03 am

I showed this to my girlfriend, who knows nothing about cricket, and she was both touched and impressed. Like others, I think the NFL is being ridiculously naive (surprise) as it plans for a normal season. Baseball, which if not cricket is at least a poor facsimile is supposed to be starting soon, so I’d like to highlight this, from Washington Nationals (defending World Series champs) pitcher Sean Doolittle:

“We’re trying to bring baseball back during a pandemic that’s killed 130,000 people,” Doolittle said. “We’re way worse off as a country then we were in March when we shut this thing down. And, like, look at where other developed countries are in their response to this. We haven’t done any of the things that other countries have done to bring sports back. Sports are like the reward of a functioning society. And we’re trying to just bring it back, even though we’ve taken none of the steps to flatten the curve. …

“If there aren’t sports, it’s going to be because people are not wearing masks, because the response to this has been so politicized,” he continued. “We need help from the general public. If they want to watch baseball, please wear a mask, social distance, keep washing your hands.”

I think “sports are like the reward of a functioning society” is just a great line.


J-D 07.20.20 at 4:15 am

Baseball, which if not cricket is at least a poor facsimile …

A useful analysis of the similarities and differences by somebody familiar with both can be found here:


John Quiggin 07.20.20 at 4:42 am

Looking at the evolution of cricket from 4-5 day matches to 20-20 slugfests, it seems as if baseball got this aspect right, at least as far the spectators are concerned.. The number of balls in a 20-20 match (120 per side) is about the same as the average number of pitches in a baseball game.


TheSophist 07.20.20 at 3:15 pm

I was born in the UK, and have very fond memories of watching (on BBC2) the England teams of the early/mid 70s. Alan Knott was my favorite player. In 1977 (7/7/77 to be precise) my family moved to Montana, where the cricket culture was… not strong, so I began following baseball, teaching myself the rules by watching ABC’s Monday Night Baseball.

I still prefer cricket, even test matches (I’ve got the Grauniad OBO open in a window right now) because it seems to me that there is a much greater range for both tactical and strategical thinking. England’s tactic last night, opening with Stokes and Buttler, would quite literally be illegal in baseball.

Prof. Quiggin makes a very good point about T20 having about the same number of balls (and taking about the same time) as a baseball game; going the other direction, baseball’s recent development of fielding shifts (defensive players positioned far from their traditional posts) is a cricket-esque development.

I am lucky enough to teach a course titled “Sports and Society” which includes a cricket unit (hey, my course, my curriculum!). The one thing that always boggles the minds of the students after I show clips of (eg) Paul Collingwood snatching the ball out of the air at point is “wait, they don’t wear mitts?” Also, the relay catches on the boundary are universally admired.


Suzanne 07.20.20 at 11:41 pm


Doolittle is a good pitcher and a fine fellow, also a member of the Democratic Socialists of America.

Echoing Graham D. Shevlin and others above who do not think an NFL season will happen. If sports like baseball and games like golf which already incorporate a lot of natural social distancing (not counting the dugout) are having trouble, it’s very hard to see how a sport based on men charging into each other at high speed is going to manage. Also, many football stadiums are now enclosed, so little fresh air will circulate in those venues.

However, NFL players have shorter careers than ballplayers and a weaker union as well, so they may feel more pressure to get out there regardless of the risks.

It’s too bad, because I was curious to see how things would go with Cam Newton in New England this year. In general, though, I haven’t missed sports as much as I thought. It’s hard to focus on such things when, as Doolittle said, your society is not functioning properly and lives are at stake. And when I do feel the need, there’s plenty of fine vintage action on the web.

On the other hand, as a performing arts fan, I am guiltily enjoying an embarrassment of riches, with companies and orchestras worldwide streaming performances that would never be released commercially. And the prospect for the performing arts is far more dire than that for sports.


hix 07.21.20 at 3:25 pm

So how many people with a similar health status as nfl players get lasting damage from covid compared to how many get lasting damage from just playing football? Makes perfect sense the nfl would like to play.
Regarding Golf, with a sufficient number of complete idiots, every sport can become a risk https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/23/sports/tennis/novak-djokovic-coronavirus.html
Unlikely golf or tennis would be a problem with some level of sanity involved among participants.


Harry 07.21.20 at 3:33 pm

Having sat through a number of baseball games it seems sluggish, compared with 20/20, and hard to imagine that it would survive if the two sports were in serious competition. The range of skills in cricket and, even in 20/20 the scope for complexity in strategy and tactics, seems much greater. Of course, neither comes close to matching Test cricket for suspense….


Trader Joe 07.21.20 at 5:26 pm

Harry…with respect, I think you’d need to sit through more than ‘a number’ of baseball games to appreciate the strategy and complexity of the baseball tactics and degree of skill involved. Hitting a major league baseball has often been recognized as “the most difficult task is sport” and while good men can debate that point, its surely on the short list. Which you prefer is probably more a matter of familiarity than distinct ‘better-ness’ between the two.

Having grown up in America I was a student of baseball. When I lived in the UK I was about a block from Lords and made it a point to become a student of that game as well. The first dozen or so matches I watched either in person on Telly didn’t seem all that interesting but gradually I came to understand the bowling tactics, managing the pitch, being aggressive or defensive at the crease and the corresponding positioning moves to defend (a few well purchased drinks for geezers with orange and yellow ties likewise accelerated my knowledge or at least provided me several perspectives).

Both games are by far best in person and lose much on TV, though both if well announced can work on Radio. Both employ bats and balls, fielders and pitchers/bowlers after that the similarities fade quickly.

Test cricket at its best is one of the most interesting sports on Earth. That said, if the teams are unequal it can be painfully dull and only so much strategy can make up for dreadful bowling, batting or both. Baseball suffers from not having International competition, but the playoffs and World Series can be similarly captivating if thought of as a best of 7 day test rather than 7 single games with managers being tactical both within and across the days.

I’m pleased that baseball is just a couple days from resuming. I’ll be watching Thursday night and might even sip a Boddingtons as I do.


ph 07.21.20 at 9:44 pm

Indoor school sports – masks are worn. Outdoor football practices (robust) without masks. Public tennis courts – masks optional. That’s in my neighbourhood.

As the thread on school openings is now closed, here’s Gallup.

7 percent of parents currently favor full-time distance learning; 37 a mix; and the majority support in-class learning – 56 percent. That’s 93 percent favouring back to school in September in some form or another.

The teachers’ unions are being set up to be the enemy. If we don’t see some common sense and flexibility it’s very hard to see parents lining up to support teachers on this issue in November. The assumption that Trump will lose in November has taken hold in some circles.

Should that not be the case, and kids are still out of schools, what do you think Trump is going to do to public service unions? The teachers unions are generally strongly Dem and their partisan hostility and support for the 1619 project make them a ripe target in an all-out assault on public education in 2021, even Dems do manage to win at the federal level. Universities are laying staff off already. Parents want schools to open now in some form by a very substantial majority. Ignoring the wishes of 93 percent of the parents much longer is likely to come at an immense cost, and will very likely play a key role in re-electing Trump, and handing the House back to the GOP, if they have the wit to exploit the conflict.

Remember all the 2016 speculation about a massive Trump defeat and the down ballot consequences? Good thing that can’t happen twice. (Note the ‘slightly’ in the Gallup link) Whistling past the grave yard?


Play on.


Harry 07.21.20 at 9:56 pm

Trader Joe — I know that! I was mainly being flippant. I’m not especially interested in 20/20, but it odes seem to have a lot more action than baseball. Surprising, really, that it wasn’t invented earlier. I have watched a fair bit of softball (which seems more like cricket than baseball does) and pretty quickly got to appreciate the skills (not so much the tactics or strategy).

My point about suspense wasn’t flippant at all though, but I accept the point about unequally matched teams. In the past 6 years that I have, again, been watching a great deal of it, the team I watch most (England) have been so mercurial that they can beat teams that are far superior and lose to teams far inferior, so they are always fun to watch!


Suzanne 07.22.20 at 3:58 am

@13: Zverev isn’t the only one. Djokovic’s reported infection is richly deserved. Not only was he observed partying during the tour he organized with zero social distancing but he was one of those complaining about the distancing and other protective measures planned for the U.S. Open. Also announced he wasn’t taking any vaccine, no sirree. It would be a nice bit of justice if his career is shortened by lung damage.


sy 07.23.20 at 6:45 pm

Two data points in support of Harry’s contention that cricket deserves credit as a politically progressive sport and institution.

1) CLR James’s Beyond a Boundary. I’m surprised no one’s mentioned it yet.

2) This hysterical denunciation of cricket as a leveler across the rank hierarchy of Georgian England and competitor with the capitalist work ethic, from the Gentleman’s Magazine of 1743:

“Cricket is certainly a very innocent and wholesome Exercise; yet, it may be abused, if either great or little People make it their Business. It is grossly abused, when it is made the Subject of publick Advertisements, to draw together great Crowds of People, who ought all of them to be somewhere else. Noblemen, Gentlemen and Clergymen, have certainly a Right to divert themselves in what Manner they think fit; nor do I dispute their Privilege of making Butchers, Coblers, or Tinkers their Companions, provided these are qualified to keep them company… The Diversion of Cricket may be proper in Holiday Time, and in the Country but upon Days when Men ought to be busy, and in the Neighborhood of a great City, it is not only Improper but mischievous in a high Degree. It draws Numbers of People from their Employments, to the Ruin of their Families. It brings together Crowds of Apprentices and Servants, whose Time is not their own. It propagates a Spirit of Idleness at a Juncture, when, with the utmost Industry, our Debts, Taxes, and Decay of Trade, will scarce allow us to get Bread.”

Sign me up.

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