Colin Kaepernick and the broken circle

From time to time, I've written about the premise that games establish a "magic circle" around themselves -- or, rather, the inverse: that a game is a game in part because it has been circumscribed. The function of that circle is to suspend the context of outside events that might otherwise complicate or distract from play. Something like the Christmas Truce of 1914, when British and German troops reportedly ceased hostilities long enough to exchange gifts and play soccer, are made possible by that suspension. Shared reverence for Christmas helped, of course, but that hardly detracts from the magic circle theory. Whatever magic binds the circle is activated by just the sort of ritual observance commonly centered on holidays. Even in peace time, holidays are prime days for big sporting events, as with the bowl games traditionally played on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.

One ritual element that can be used to fashion a magic circle is song. A crowd that sings together in unison can achieve a choral effect that provokes a psychosomatic response: a flutter in the chest or a tingling of the nerves, but above all, a tightening of the awareness on the immediate context. The Christmas Truce began with German troops singling "Stille Nacht" and British troops responding with the English equivalent. Likewise, U.S. sporting events commonly begin with a ritual performance of the National Anthem. These ritual acts are not devoid of content, of course, but in their role as preamble to a game, their social function is as immediate as whatever their words might mean to the people involved. They concentrate us on the crowd, on our participation in it, and on the locus of attention that we share.

Part of what makes the protests started by Colin Kaepernick so effective -- which is to say, so disquieting to many observers -- is the gap they create in that circle. There's more to it, of course. For example: the perception that kneeling during the National Anthem is a sign of disrespect -- a largely manufactured perception that the precise form of Kaepernick's protest was designed to avoid. Nor has the U.S. population as a whole ever been particularly amenable to reminders of racial injustice, particularly when voiced by black citizens.

Certainly, those are predominant factors, but as a matter of methodology, what Kaepernick and his colleagues are doing is effectively a sort of ritual-jamming. Kaepernick has positioned taking a knee as a reminder of a specific feature of the broader national context, namely the disproportionate scrutiny and force used in policing black citizens. By inserting that reminder into an opening ritual of each game, pro football players refuse to allow the suspension of that particular context. The circle is left unclosed, and into the gap rushes this essential injustice of black life in America.