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Barbershop: Super Bowl Politics


And finally today, we're going to head into the Barbershop. That's where we invite interesting people to talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. And, yes, there's an awful lot going on in the news today. But we decided to talk about Super Bowl LIII, which is tomorrow in Atlanta.

We decided to focus on that because the Super Bowl is usually the most-watched or one of the most-watched television programs of the year. Usually, more than 100,000,000 watch it along with the halftime show and the commercials. And there have been controversies before about the game or the show, but this year, it seems as though the controversy or controversies are the story, from the officiating in the playoffs to the number of artists who apparently declined to perform during a halftime show in support of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who hasn't played in two seasons after setting off a wave of activism and condemnation for kneeling during the national anthem.

We wanted to talk about all of that, so we've called three people who've thought about the issues that we're talking about here. And joining us now is Mark Leibovich. He's the chief national correspondent for The New York Times Magazine. He's also the author of "Big Game: The NFL In Dangerous Times."


MARK LEIBOVICH: Good to be here.

MARTIN: We're also joined by Rodney Carmichael, who reports on hip-hop for NPR and NPR Music.

Glad to have you back, Rodney.

LEIBOVICH: Hey, Michel. Thanks.

MARTIN: And Megan McArdle is with us. She's opinion columnist at The Washington Post.

Welcome back to you as well.

MEGAN MCARDLE: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: And Mark, I'm going to start with you because you're a political reporter first, but you took some time off to report and write a book that looks at the inner workings of the NFL. And guess what? You're still covering politics.

LEIBOVICH: (Laughter).

MARTIN: So is the Super Bowl more fraught this year than it's been before? If that's true, why is that? And is that OK?

LEIBOVICH: Absolutely it is more fraught, just like everything is more politicized. And you're right. I mean, I decided to take a break from politics to jump into the National Football League for a couple of years, and, like, there is no break whatsoever. Since Donald Trump came upon the scene, everything has been more divided, including the Super Bowl.

MARTIN: And, Megan, you've written kind of - I don't know, despairingly - do you think that's a fair word...

MCARDLE: (Laughter) Yes.

MARTIN: ...About that very issue. I mean, you've said that there don't seem to be any places, safe spaces that don't have politics attached to them, be it the NFL or the Oscars or any public awards show.


MARTIN: Is that really a bad thing?

MCARDLE: I think it's getting more and more like that. I think my favorite episode of this was that after the election, Penzeys Spices, where I buy a lot of spaces - the owner is very anti-Trump, and it turns out that there's another spice company owned by his brother and sister-in-law, and they came out and said, well, we love everyone. And so now there is a Republican and a Democratic place to buy your bulk cinnamon. And I think that that's really - it sort of sums up where America is today.

MARTIN: So tell us about the NFL, though. I mean, do you - you know, obviously people have very different feelings about the whole kneeling controversy and what that means and the fact that two years later, it's still having an effect - the fact that, you know, artists - Rodney's going to talk more about that - are saying in support of Kaepernick and in support of the idea that he has a right to protest that they decided not to participate in something that would normally be a plum opportunity for them.


MARTIN: Is that...

MCARDLE: I mean, look, I think...

MARTIN: ...Wrong?

MCARDLE: ...That this is incredibly divisive, and people are taking stands on something they feel very strongly about. And I think one of the things that I have observed about all of this is the complete inability of either side of that debate - you know, I see both sides of that to some extent. I think Kaepernick certainly has a right to protest and that the artists certainly have a right to say no. Like, stand up - I admire people who stand up for what they believe in, even at personal cost.

But just the inability to kind of even frame the debate in a way that you can have a discussion about it because people cannot see beyond, I am outraged because he won't stand for the national anthem. I am outraged because he is being punished for not standing for the national anthem. And there's just - there's sort of no in between anymore, and it's really a sad place that America's come to.

MARTIN: Rodney, how do you see all this?

RODNEY CARMICHAEL, BYLINE: I mean, I think the thing we have to remember is, you know, there's really no form of racial justice protest that America has ever been supportive of. You know, in civil rights era, they fought back with dogs and water hoses. In Black Lives Matter, it was rubber bullets. You know, you've come to Atlanta with the Super Bowl. It is the black mecca. It's the home of civil rights. It's the home of hip-hop. There's no way that, you know, the NFL isn't going to be confronted in terms of their stance on racial politics.

MARTIN: And what is your thought about the fact that there could be or should be some place that is devoid of politics - that people could kind of just agree to take off - well, in hockey, take off your gloves has a different meaning...


MARTIN: So we'll...


MARTIN: ...Use the other meaning of take off your gloves - just kind of chill.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah. I mean, the thing is, you have to remember, like, there's a reason for protest in this country, and it's because black people, marginalized people don't have any other means of access in terms of historically being able to get their voice heard in systems of power. So protesting and, you know, at times like this where it seems like it's comfortable for everybody else - it's not comfortable for everybody else and for black folks at these other times, so that's why we're having protests at times like this.

MARTIN: So, Mark, talk a little bit more about where that that whole thing is. It's not like the main feature of your book about the NFL, but it's certainly...

LEIBOVICH: It intervened.

MARTIN: ...Bubbling under the...

LEIBOVICH: Oh, there's no question.

MARTIN: It's infused...


MARTIN: Right?

LEIBOVICH: Like, the reason I wanted to write about the National Football League is it has become the - just the great spectacle of American life. I mean, something like 48 of the top 50 top-watch shows in America every year are football games. Donald Trump became the other great spectacle of American life, the other great reality show. He's wanted to end the National Football League for years, and he just sort of belly-flopped right into the middle of this pool. And this becomes a proxy fight for whether you support Donald Trump or not.

MARTIN: And is this still, do you think - you know, it's interesting because at one point, hundreds of NFL players were kneeling, and then it became very fraught and complicated. Even some of the owners - one owner, let's say...


MARTIN: One owner at one point knelt with his team.

LEIBOVICH: Right - for one week.

MARTIN: But has it - has that - is this - is that controversy - so we're going to talk about the entertainers in a minute.


MARTIN: But is it still something that is very present for the league?

LEIBOVICH: It's present in that Colin Kaepernick does not have a job, and people are acutely aware of that. But no, protest has not been a big story this year. Donald Trump has essentially laid off, and he was occupied on the midterms and the shutdown and so forth. So - but it's very much beneath the surface. And, again, the Colin Kaepernick situation is something that a lot of people who are outside the league are very quick to weigh in on, musical acts being a great example here.

MARTIN: Megan, can I just ask you briefly about this? But not to belabor the point, but could you just address Rodney's point for a minute? I mean, Rodney's point is that, you know, the idea that some people get to have a safe place where they cannot think about the broader issues in their lives is something that some people never had. I mean, they're going back to - you know, how many - it was a great writer who said, you know, what is the fourth of July to the Negro? And did you see my point? So...

MCARDLE: Absolutely. No, look, I think that's an absolutely valid point. And I think there's kind of two questions you have to separate in that. And one is, does the country need places where it can come together on a non-political footing? And I would say it does. I'm not going to tell a player protesting police brutality no, right? I'm not going to say that. I'm just saying, like, it is sad to watch all of those spaces collapsing at once, and it is sad that the NFL is one of them. I'm not saying that, you know, I therefore think Colin Kaepernick did something wrong or that the players did something wrong.

I think the second question, which is a different question, is, tactically, does this advance your cause? And I'm more skeptical on that front. I'm skeptical that the particular form of protest chosen - it gets a lot of attention. But there's often in protesting - and I, you know, I did a lot of protesting in college, and I've looked at a lot of the social science literature on this - and it turns out that there's often a direct tradeoff in protesting between how much attention you get and how much good you're actually doing. The more attention you're getting, often, that attention is negative.

You have turned off - it's like closing down highways as a form of protest. Yes, you have attracted a lot of attention, but all of the people whose attention you have attracted hate you, so that, you know, you do have to think about. And I'm not sure that this has actually been a tactically effective protest, which is completely separate from the moral legitimacy of doing it.

MARTIN: So, Rodney, talk a little bit more about Atlanta, if you would...


MARTIN: ...And the significance of this event to Atlanta. And then talk a little bit, if you would, about the calculation, or the - calculation, is that right? - the debate that a number of artists have had about whether or not to participate.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah. Well, I mean, it's definitely an interesting time to converge upon Atlanta. You know, like I said, it's the black mecca in a lot of ways, especially in pop culture. You've got, you know, hip-hop capital, you've got the legacy of civil rights, the home of Dr. King. And so, you know, I think coming to Atlanta made the Kaepernick thing and the NFL that much more impossible for the NFL to escape, you know? And it's a confrontation in a lot of ways. But I think, for a lot of entertainers, it's been one of those things where your decision is your politics, and, you know, your politics affect your pocket. And so all of that is in play.

MARTIN: So what about Big Boi, Travis Scott, Maroon 5...


MARTIN: ...Gladys Knight, who...


MARTIN: ...Are participating. What is it for them? I know that's a lot of people to talk about. But maybe...


MARTIN: ...Talk about Travis Scott and Big Boi.

MARTIN: Yeah. I mean, Big Boi, he's, you know, home of outcasts, home of Atlanta. He's done a lot for the city. I think one of the really interesting things about all of the people that are performing that you name - they all have ties to the same manager, Irving Azoff, whose management company has - you know, he's been a really power player in the music industry for a long time. So, you know, you have this situation where a lot of performers are performing on a stage at a time when a lot of people don't want them to. And I think you have to kind of look at the machinations of the music industry and how that plays...

MARTIN: Briefly, is it a plus or a minus for these artists? Will it be at the end of this?

CARMICHAEL: It's a little more nuanced than that, you know? I think - you know, there's still a lot of black fans of the NFL. A lot of black fans are going to be watching the Super Bowl. I think that you've got to be able to use your mike to say something in this country, and, you know, hip-hop has that tradition. So for Big Boi and Travis Scott, I think they're going to be between a rock and a hard place if they don't figure that out.

MARTIN: Mark, very briefly?

LEIBOVICH: Well, I would say yes. I mean, I think the racial politics of this are also inescapable. I mean, the Atlanta Falcons have a actually 40 percent black season ticket base, which is just unprecedented in the league. And Maroon 5 made some news this week by refusing to hold a press conference. So there's speculation they might have a surprise in store. This is very much in keeping with the reality show.

MARTIN: Very briefly - such a cliche - Rams or Patriots? I'm sorry. I have to do it.

LEIBOVICH: You know, I grew up in New England, so I, as a birthright, root for the Patriots. And I know everyone else is rooting against them.

MARTIN: That's true. Rodney?

CARMICHAEL: (Laughter) I'm going to pick Atlanta. I'm rooting for Atlanta.

MARTIN: OK. Megan?

MCARDLE: I come out - I'm descended from Boston people, so I have to also go with the Patriots, or they will kill me.

MARTIN: OK (laughter). That's Megan McArdle of The Washington Post, Mark Leibovich, New York Times chief national correspondent, and NPR Music hip-hop writer Rodney Carmichael.

Thank you all so much for joining us.

CARMICHAEL: Thanks so much.

MCARDLE: Thanks for having me.