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Sports and politics, explained by a photo of Ron Rivera holding a USWNT jersey

Let me start by saying something that is hopefully obvious: Ron Rivera can and should root for the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team, since he seems to be so inclined. I am jealous of his custom jersey.

The photo of him holding said jersey would probably not be quite as remarkable if it weren’t taken in front of the name and logo of his new employer, the Washington NFL team — so, in front of a racial slur and a caricature of an indigenous man.

That team, like many others at every level of American sports (including the Kansas City Chiefs, who are preparing to compete in the Super Bowl where their fans will once again bastardize Native American culture with crude costumes and the inescapable “Tomahawk Chop”), uses the indigenous peoples of North America as a mascot. Such imagery turns the survivors and the victims of a centuries-long genocide — perpetrated in the name of “liberty and justice for all” — into a mythical, subhuman “other.”

The dissonance of Rivera touting his allegiance to his country — in this case, via cheering for its athletic supremacy and sporting the colors of its flag — in front of an offensive depiction of the very people who were systematically murdered to create it, is jarring. It’s like when the Washington NFL team is scheduled to play on Thanksgiving, a holiday designed around the lovely lie that the United States was founded with some friendly negotiating over a good meal and not the violent destruction of an entire way of life. Or when you hear someone singing about the “land of the free and the home of the brave” to entire stadiums of people literally wearing their racism on their sleeve. Those same fans listen as they wait to watch teams comprised mostly of Black men play a sport with a 100 percent injury rate for less money than they deserve, all so billionaires (called their “owners”) can profit hand over foot.

Like the women whose jersey he’s understandably proud to wear, Rivera is often billed as a trailblazer: the first Mexican and Puerto Rican NFL player; the first American of Puerto Rican descent to win a Super Bowl; the second Latino coach to win a Super Bowl.

Rivera was born in California, but his father is from Puerto Rico — the beautiful island commonwealth with a status as an unincorporated American territory which prevents its citizens from voting for the president and having representation in Congress, but not from paying federal taxes. His mother’s family immigrated from Mexico, crossing the same border where would-be migrants are currently being unlawfully and unethically detained by American authorities to the point of potentially violating international human rights laws.

He shares the jersey — presumably, based on his wording, a gift — of the most popular team of women athletes in the world right now as part of what’s become popular social media marketing trope for women’s sports organizations: Look at this famous MAN (bonus points if he is also an athlete) who likes to watch WOMEN play sports! How implausible and good! The man is no longer simply a person who likes something fun. Instead, he is a symbol of how women’s sports become worthwhile when men, the inherently superior athletes and thus arbiters of legitimate competition, decide they are.

The U.S. Women’s National Team is an easy one to like. First of all — and one hopes, naively, most importantly — they are good. Second, they are majority white, majority straight and mostly attractive, according to cisgender, white heteropatriarchal standards. Not characteristics they have any choice in the matter about, of course, but still characteristics that always impact which women get attention and respect or not (just ask the U.S. Women’s National Basketball Team). Third, they are competing under the banner of the stars and stripes, inciting nationalism and tribalism in hopes of getting people to ignore their somehow-even-more-deeply-entrenched sexism. Historically, getting people to cheer for women athletes when they also get to cheer “U-S-A” — or even for their alma mater — has been exponentially easier than it is otherwise. In practice, this means women athletes get the most attention at the Olympics, a wholly corrupt institution incompatible with any progressive vision of contemporary global society, the same contest the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team is competing to qualify for.

So we accept a vague gesture towards gender equality couched in the same nationalistic fervor that has been, and will continue to be, a rationale for neocolonialism. We accept that America continues to treat its long history of systemic oppression and state violence as no more serious than a rallying cry for a football game. We accept that rooting for women is still something men apparently deserve a cookie for. Not happily, but for at least as long as it takes to look at this goofy picture, we accept it.

Thankfully the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team is pretty fucking great, and I guess at least Rivera (for some reason, notably) understands that.

This Article was first Published on sbnation.com

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