A football player who protests against the actions of his government, is shunned by fans and eventually ends up out of the league, working for social justice. It sounds like the story of Colin Kaepernick but it’s also a story from 50 years ago, the story of Dave Meggyesy.
A linebacker for the St Louis Cardinals, Meggyesy walked away from the game in 1969, after seven years in the NFL. In 1970, he wrote Out of Their League – a blistering assault on football and its institutions that exposed the racism, drug-taking, orgies and corruption that the game – at college and professional levels – had hitherto hidden under a flag, some pom-poms and a whole lot of noise.
It’s a tough book to read if you’re a football fan, just as it’s tough for some of us today to watch the game amid the concussion crisis and the vitriol directed at black players who choose to kneel during the national anthem. Meggyesy’s book shows that neither of those issues are new.
In his introduction he talks about blocking a player on a kickoff and how he “heard his knee explode in my ear, a jagged, tearing sound of muscles and ligaments separating”. That was one of many incidents that slowly accumulated and made Meggyesy wonder whether he wanted to carry on playing the game.
The black-balling of Colin Kaepernick and the criticism of players for kneeling during the anthem are sometimes explained as a desire to keep politics out of the game. ‘It’s not about the issue,’ say the critics, ‘it’s just that we don’t want to think about politics when we sit down to watch football on a Sunday.’
That sounds disingenuous to many, especially to British fans who have been to a game in the US. American football is already politicised in a way that, say, Premier League soccer matches are not. The national anthem, the military flypasts and the patriotic songs would be out of place at a typical soccer match. (In Baltimore, pre-game, they play a song with the strangely defensive lyrics “And I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free”.)
But the blindness of the average American to the politicisation of the NFL suggests that they just aren’t paying attention. Plenty of people have pointed it out – check out Michael Oriard’s Brand NFL for a recent example – but Meggyesy was one of the first.
“Although I was becoming more conscious politically,” he writes, “I hadn’t yet fully understood football as a political phenomenon, or the way it resembled a circus for the increasingly chaotic American empire.”
As his social consciousness grew, Meggyesy became increasingly alienated within his sport and got involved in anti-Vietnam War activism. At one point, he decided to protest during the national anthem:
“I’d thought a lot about this and decided that saluting the flag was ridiculous. Every time I even looked at it, I saw only a symbol of repression, so I decided to protest. My original idea was to pull a Tommy Smith by raising my right fist in the air and bowing my head. Instead, I decided not to salute the flag but to pretend I was nervous for the game.
“I was aware that if my protest was too obvious I would be severely fined. When the national anthem started I stepped out of line and began kicking the dirt and holding my helmet down in front of me with my two hands. My head was bowed and I was spitting on the ground and moving from side to side scuffing the ground with my shoes.”
The incident led to enraged calls to local radio stations and, at the next game, one of Meggyesy’s teammates grabbed him by the belt during the anthem so that he couldn’t step out of line.
Meggyesy’s book was ignored by the NFL. Pete Rozelle, NFL Commissioner from 1960 to 1989 refused to speak about him or the book. In 1987 – seventeen years after the book was published – a Sports Illustrated piece about Meggyesy said Rozelle still refused to comment.
The parallels to the Kaepernick situation are extraordinary and Meggyesy has praised the former 49ers QB for his protest. Still, it’s disappointing that, on one level, so little has changed. However, Meggyesy did open something of a dialogue. Gradually, more reporters began to dig into the darker side of the game and dared to be a little more critical.
There’s a path from Out of Their League to books like League of Denial and the work of journalists like Mike Freeman and, for that, those fans who are concerned about the treatment of players owe Meggyesy gratitude.