Throughout the month of October, as fellow SI writer Greg Bishop and I canvassed thirty states, plus the District of Columbia, asking Americans how they felt about this country’s favorite sport, we sensed something deeper, more calamitous and more important pulsing beneath the heartbeat of our country’s passion for football.
We sensed it while listening to a quartet of 30-something-year-old African-American fans outside the Redskins-Ravens game in Baltimore—citizens who, four weeks before the election, still couldn’t fathom that president-elect Donald Trump had won the Republican nomination. They asserted, with some merit, that the Trump phenomenon would have been unthinkable the last time those two teams played, in 2012, when Barack Obama was battling Mitt Romney in what seemed at the time like a contentious presidential race.
I saw it in Bermuda-grass front yards throughout Florida, my home state, in the form of Trump-Pence signs that seemed to multiply as I drove north toward Georgia and South Carolina. It appeared on huge, rectangular blocks of hay in Idaho, shielded from the rain by massive tarps emblazoned with the last name of the businessman, widely known for his reality TV series. It gleamed in the eyes of a middle-aged woman in Texas who not only said that she took issue with Colin Kaepernick’s Constitutional right to peaceful protest, but also formed her hand into the shape of a pistol, saying she wanted to shoot him for it.
It was on the bumpers of pickup trucks in Montana, their owners honking to celebrate high school touchdowns: Hillary for Prison 2016.
It was on the radio dial, in alarming quantity, as we drove through Delaware and Nebraska, Louisiana and Pennsylvania: angry, pro-Trump rhetoric crackling in our rental cars, preaching distrust, cynicism, exclusion.
We saw these signs—both literal and figurative—in rural counties where the population was greater than 2,500 but less than 20,000 (he won 65.8%). But we saw them in cities, too.
The country wasn’t dividing. It had already divided. And as it turned out, football provided the perfect window, the ideal conversational ice-breaker, through which the breadth of this divide became apparent. Questions about concussions sparked answers that wound their way to Kaepernick, to the condition of our country, to the impending election. An NFL fan at a watering hole near Capitol Hill drew links between our thirst for football brutality, the gun violence epidemic in Chicago and the unseemly campaign that had catapulted Trump to the Super Bowl of American politics.
Americans who opposed Trump asked us in whispered amazement, How has his campaign made it this far? as if his secrets had been revealed to us during our tour. I can’t speak for my colleague, Greg, but by then I had been asking that same question for 18 months.
How has this divide in our country advanced so far, so fast?
As October faded and election day dawned, Football in America placed the answer in front of us. Despite everything our travels had shown us, we had no idea how far it had truly gone.