The act of burning a sports jersey entered our visual lexicon back in 2010, when LeBron James left the Cleveland Cavaliers to join the Miami Heat. Pained by this abandonment, and the way James had built suspense beforehand with an ESPN special about his decision, Cavs fans torched team gear with his name and number on it. Any catharsis they were after was immediately complicated by the urge to record and upload videos of this effigy-burning. It was not enough to be mad; one had to show the NBA, along with the entire internet — including James himself — exactly how one felt: betrayed.
This is now standard spite, the “You didn’t dump me, I dumped you!” of the athletic world, lately echoed by Trump’s redundant disinvitation to the White House for Steph Curry. It’s happened to many basketball players, Dwyane Wade and Kevin Durant among them. A typically male expression — transforming sadness into destructive rage — jersey-burning seeks to provoke a reaction. But what sort? Are pros to be cowed into lifelong service for a single franchise, lest the fanbase incinerate their own expensive merch? No wonder outlets like Sports Illustrated called these people trolls. Cleveland seemed happy to forget bygones when LeBron returned to deliver a title.
Seven years later, men are burning their NFL jerseys, and not because their lineup lost an all-star. In response to teams judged insufficiently patriotic for kneeling or staying inside the locker room during the national anthem, thereby protesting police violence toward communities of color, fans are dousing once-treasured shirts and hats in lighter fluid atop barbecue pits to condemn these peaceful demonstrations. In their minds, football players are “disrespecting” the American flag, and the only equivalent revenge is to disrespect the team’s logo — which hints at what they really think of the flag.
Certainly this reads as the escalation of your garden-variety racist tantrum. You notice, in poring over videos of NBA jersey-burnings from and since the LeBron debacle, that it’s often white guys with the lighter, attacking a symbol of black success with an elemental force long favored by the Klan for its intimidative power. The ritual is automatically couched in a notion of the athlete as “ungrateful,” or unwilling to make their body a permanent vessel of leisurely attention and ambition for a prescribed subset of whites. Note, too, that a recent craze for burning Trump’s Make America Great Again hats was directly precipitated by his willingness to cut an immigration deal with Democrats, almost as if performative revenge-burnings always indicate a moment when white America feels assaulted by a future in which their advantage has been pared.
Above is the most telling of these videos to date, as broadcast by Fox News. Here we have an elderly man, Arvin Gibbs, who joined Twitter in 2012 but never posted anything until Sunday, when he saw fit to fuel a blaze with his Pittsburgh Steelers jacket and cap after more than 50 years of fandom. The clip garnered around 60,000 likes and a slew of approving replies before Gibbs deleted his entire account. If the game’s honor were so important, he might have previously revoked support for a team with a deep history of cheating and a probable rapist for a quarterback, but everyone has their line, and his was black men being mean to a song. And as the sportswear flames up instantly (god knows what chemical fumes he inhaled), you can already feel the awkward impotence of the gesture: He stands near the smoldering pile, holding his American flag uncertainly, more than once dipping it toward the fire, unsure of how to behave in his own bit of political theater, a pathetic anticlimax before it actually began.
Aside from confirming his own prejudices, this gentleman defines the reactionary right’s iconography. Certainly just burning the Steelers gear would have conveyed his displeasure, but he clings to the star-spangled banner as some token of warped nostalgia, trying to show how it supersedes any regional football loyalties.
But real patriots don’t need that spelled out; they know that an overpriced made-in-China windbreaker you bought at the stadium souvenir shop is no substitute for an emblem, however imperfect, of national pride and history. Only someone who needs cover for their un-American bullshit uses the flag this way — to claim the “Real America,” or Americanness, for themselves. Meanwhile, the highest allegiance a black man can have is to his sports uniform. Burning the jersey is a way to say: “If you had a flag, I’d burn that, but you really don’t, as this flag is ours, and it will never include you.”
Of course, that gives away the whole twisted ruse. White football fans don’t care about respect for the flag, but about black fealty to what they believe it represents: themselves.