Kaepernick, A 21st Century Portrait

When Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno made Zidane, A 21st Century Portrait, filmed at a La Liga match on April 23, 2005, they were not to know what would happen in the 2006 World Cup final.

In Gordon and Parreno’s film, the pre-headbutt Zidane was like Achilles in Homer’s Iliad – the focal point, the narrative crux through which all the action is experienced and through which the myth of the Trojan War was retold.

In a brief essay, with the unforgettable title “Ventriloquous Evil”, written shortly after the infamous final and before the author’s death, French philosopher Jean Baudrillard describes the headbutt incident in the following terms:

Zidane and his head butt at the last World Cup [is] a stunning act of disqualification, of sabotage…By blighting this ritual of planetary identification, these nuptials between sport and the planet, by refusing to be the idol and mirror of globalization in such an emblematic event, he is denying the universal pact that permits the transfiguration of our sad reality by Good and allows billions of unidentified human beings to find an identity in the void (the same sublimation operates in the sacred illusion of war)…It is a ‘blow’ by which everyone can be said to have lost the World Cup. But isn’t that better than having won a victory for globalization itself?

Baudrillard then proceeds to fold Zidane’s act into a series of refusals from literature and film – including Bartelby’s refusal to work, Rimbaud’s refusal to write (his ‘literaturicide’) and the main character in Tony Richardson’s 1962 film The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner‘s refusal to run.

Today the figure of Colin Kaepernick somehow manages to occupy the position of the pre-headbutt Zidane of Gordon and Parreno’s film as well as the post-headbutt Zidance of Baudrillard’s essay. His refusal to stand for the national anthem by taking the knee embodies the figure of Achilles pitted against a host of arrogant and dictatorial Agamemnons, from his attackers in the conservative and right-wing media, such as Tori Lehrer, to the President of the United States.

Yet unlike other sportsmen and women who decide to protest and speak out from their current position of active influence (e.g. Lebron James), Kaepernick’s current unsigned status in the NFL also highlights the precarity of his previous role as a sportsperson. Sure, he cannot be compared to Zidane in terms of his significance as a player (and I am in no position to judge as I don’t even follow American Football, as I I am still prone to call it!) yet by making kneeling the act of his refusal articulates a significant humility and that is why his actions are being followed by others still playing the game (and other games). Yet, as with Baudrillard’s analysis of Zidane, there is something powerful, a ‘blow’, within even this peaceful act of refusal. Here I am reminded of the mixture of humility and criticism in the words of Achilles whom Odysseus encounters in the underworld in the Odyssey (Od. 11. 489-491):

I’d rather be a slave on earth for another man,
than rule down here over all the breathless dead.

Here Achilles is still Achilles after his death, in that, even by showing the painful humility of preferring a life of slavery, he is able, at the same moment, to denounce the regal arrogance of Agamemnon that previously stoked his rage, in his refusal of ruling over the dead. Just so, Zidane is still Zidane after the headbutt in his “refusing to be the idol and mirror of globalization”, in that his act of sabotage, makes all of us losers, as we have been robbed of the hero of the game that we love, revealing it for the global capitalist spectacle that it is. And, just so, Kaepernick is still Kaepernick, who, to adjust Baudrillard’s words slightly, “by blighting this ritual of nationalistic identification” in taking a knee during the national anthem, even after he has stopped playing. He remains an icon of resistance, in his refusal to both stand by amid the institutional racism of his country and on behalf of a game, flush with the hypocrisy of fame-filled life of money plus brain damage, that rejected him as a result. I cannot think of a more compelling moment for Gordon and Parreno to make the sequel to their Zidane film, calling it: Kaepernick, A 21st Century Portrait. 

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