In 1967, a retired pimp named Robert “Iceberg Slim” Beck published a memoir about the sex trade called Pimp: The Story of My Life. While many American readers couldn’t see past the flashy clothes and immorality, the book’s revelations about the business of pimping have had wider implications. In The Baffler, Shawn Hamilton sees many disturbing parallels between professional football and the pimp game.
Football players and viewers are experiencing what can only be called an awakening. Using Slim’s story, Hamilton frames the NFL’s treatment of its players, and the players’ dehumanized status in the American economy, to that of sex workers to and their uncaring bosses. Players are physically groomed to work “a track” in “the game” with little to no hope of ever enjoying a fruitful retirement after their usefulness has expired. Players, like sex workers, are property, and owners protect their own long-term interests by colluding with each other. Worse yet, as NFL players take a knee, it’s clear that most owners refuse to recognize their players’ identity as black men in America, so power, privilege, and racism all play into the game. Few viewers want to see the politics that goes into their recreational viewing, so a lot of psychological grooming and PR is required to maintain the NFL’s pimp game. Now that players like Colin Kaepernick have helped further reveal the truth, American consumers have to make important moral decisions about whether they want to support this business’ wealthy owners, the pimps, or support the players who, like us, are cogs in an exploitive machine.
The league has its own fantasies to peddle. Its hustle is rooted in subtlety, in finding sweet spots that profit from, yet also transcend the zeitgeist. The league needs fans who will argue that they don’t want politics in the game—after their taxpayer dollars have been funneled into one stadium boondoggle after another. The league also needs fans who will buy a league jersey to support Colin Kaepernick, despite the suspicion that, as Kaepernick’s suit against the NFL claims, the team owners are blackballing him.
The lords of the NFL need a sports media propaganda arm that will recycle stories on the league’s behalf—stories in which coaches are cast as missionary workers going into the wilds of the inner-city and saving wayward young men by teaching them to play football; in which owners are credited with revitalizing communities after having demanded hundreds of millions in subsidies from those same communities; and in which the league is credited with patriotism for upholding the noble traditions of America’s game despite demanding millions of dollars from the Department of Defense in exchange for patriotic displays.
This is a delicate hustle that requires that owners speak in one voice—and pimp with an undeviating shared purpose. Too much attention to any one side of the equation ruins it: an open alliance with the Trumpites sends one message and creates problems; openly supporting the players sends another.
So, what are pimps to do?