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American Pimps

The NFL, Donald Trump, and Iceberg Slim

Robert “Iceberg Slim” Beck’s 1967 autobiography Pimp: The Story of My Life chronicles Beck’s rise, fall, and redemption. Much of the book reads as a kind of coming-of-age story, with Beck trying to ply his trade, making mistakes, and then using the “wisdom” of mentors to correct his course. The reader learns about the world of the pimp, not through Beck, but through his teachers. And one key dilemma Beck lays out for his readers is what might be called the thoroughbred problem.

Pimps like horse metaphors. The “girls” have to be “broken in.” They work on a “track.” In a group they are a “stable.”

The horse symbolism in Pimp takes an even darker, more dehumanizing tone when it comes to the question of what to do with a “girl” who has exceeded her useful working life or become obsolete. A young, strong, hardworking “girl” is a “thoroughbred,” and like the thoroughbred horse who’s no longer fit to run a race, she can become a problem.

One of Beck’s mentors, a pimp called Glass Top, puts it in blunt terms. The pimp has found the “girl” when she is young and vulnerable. He’s filled her mind with “air castles”—fantasizes about one day retiring comfortably. Eventually, she gets older and hipper and realizes it was all a ruse. “A bitch like that is a ticking time bomb,” Glass Top tells Beck. “Every day, her value to the pimp drops to the zero line. She’s old, tired, and dangerous. She can rattle a pimp into goofing his whole game. If the pimp is a sucker he’ll try to drive her away with his foot in her ass. She’s almost a cinch to croak him or cross him into the joint.”

So, what is a pimp to do?

Money on the Brain

The NFL finds itself facing a similar dilemma. The average player’s career will last a few years, and a couple of years after that, he will likely be broke. Later in life, he will likely suffer from memory loss, depression, and mood swings or other symptoms related to acute brain injuries. Fans and commentators usually discuss this brutal truth separately from the recent conflicts between football players and owners over racial justice protests, but the two are related. The Hobbesian nature of the game itself is leading players to see the connection between the owners’ fundamental indifference to their health and well-being and their status as black men whose health and well-being is of little import to the nation.

Dr. Bennet Omalu’s recent memoir Truth Doesn’t Have a Side explores this dynamic. Omalu, an immigrant from Nigeria, tells a version of the classic saga of New World success and self-transformation. But rather than picking gold from the streets, he is examining tangled proteins in brains. He is the antithesis of the average NFL owner or pimp, but his story is still about lost innocence. Most whistleblower narratives oversell the naiveté of the protagonist: “I just wanted to do my job”; “I sorta wish I’d never made this groundbreaking discovery”; “I honestly thought the company would thank me for helping them save lives!” But in Omalu’s story, all these refrains all ring true.

Omalu was working as a medical examiner in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, when the body—and more importantly, the brain—of NFL legend Mike Webster came to his attention. “I knew the cause of death,” Omalu writes. “It was written out for me in black and white. ‘White male fifty years old. Suffered a massive heart attack’. But the words in his file did not explain how a hero beloved and admired by the entire city of Pittsburgh had become a bankrupt, divorced, homeless man living in his truck. I suspected the answer to the mystery could be found in his brain.”

In Webster’s brain, Omalu discovered “ghost cells” and “strangling tau proteins” that, “resembled Alzheimer’s” but were different. He named the condition “chronic traumatic encephalothapy” (CTE ), and recent studies suggest that more than 90 percent of NFL players will suffer from it. Prior to Omalu’s discovery, the NFL had acknowledged the existence of “minor traumatic brain injury,” without explaining how injuries can be both minor and traumatic, but the league dismissed Omalu’s findings, together with those of other medical investigators, only to later pay a $765 million dollar settlement without openly admitting any wrongdoing related to head injuries.[*]

In the years since Webster’s death, football legends including Junior Seau, Andre Waters, Adrian Robinson, and Aaron Hernandez committed suicide and were later discovered to have CTE. Football greats including Terry Bradshaw, Tony Dorsett, Joe Namath, and Brett Favre have shown symptoms. A recent Boston University study found CTE in 110 of the 111 brains of former players that it studied.

As Iceberg Slim might put it, the players and public alike have been sold a series of air castles.

As Iceberg Slim might put it, the players and public alike have been sold a series of air castles. The average player’s career lasts three and a half years. During that time, he will make roughly a million dollars a year, which after taxes and assorted fees nets to about $300,000. After what’s often a lifetime of playing football in many cases, the typical player will pocket a total of one million dollars. Most players are bankrupt or “under financial stress” two years after leaving the sport, Omalu notes.

The future awaiting the average player is both certain and uncertain. He will almost certainly have some health problems. He will almost certainly be broke. He just does not know how bad it will all be. Yet the league grows richer and more powerful by the day.

The league’s risks are minimized by public private “partnerships,” by state and federal subsidies, by an antitrust exemption and by a general public that is largely indifferent to, or ignorant of, the concerns of players. One set of fans identify with the players, while another lives vicariously through the owners.

And this is where Donald Trump comes in.

Boss Pimp

Iceberg Slim’s autobiography introduced the pimp to popular culture to some extent, but many of the lessons of the book were lost or diluted in the transition. The general public saw flashy outfits, cars, jewelry, and big hats, but underneath all that was an understanding that what the pimp does is illegal and despised. As a result, the only way to survive the game was for pimps to collude with one another.

The pimp of Slim’s world is, on the surface, a lot like the television caricature, but the game, as it’s known, is sophisticated collusion. Decisions are collective ones. Property rights are collectively agreed upon. If a “girl” chooses another pimp, her former pimp accepts this and moves on. The norms are understood and enforced by pimps, among pimps. The game necessitates honor among thieves.

A pimp who violates these rules attracts the wrong kind of attention. His “girls” are “out of pocket.” The disputes spill into public view, and the authorities take notice. And when Trump says, apropos of the rash of protests among black NFL players, that the “owners are afraid of players” he’s alluding to precisely this dynamic. He’s making a statement about not just owners, but ownership itself.

To own, in Trump’s estimation, is to dominate and to project power. The experience of watching him browbeat, fire, or disregard facts is vicarious and empowering to his supporters. Even though the vast majority of Trump supporters are neither bosses nor millionaires, they can still take heed of their leader’s authoritarian outbursts, and imagine themselves as sub-apprentices or apprentices-in-the making.

Owners who allow workers to make their own rules disrupt this particular air-castle fantasy. Sub-apprentices are reminded of their own inadequacies, of the changing dynamics in their own communities, of the “One for English Two for Spanish” option on the helpline. For any semblance of this same awareness to creep into America’s favorite and most openly masculine sport is too much for them to handle. Trump channels this outrage.

And, of course, he also has a personal political stake in fanning it. The NFL has been a safe haven for presidents for decades now. George H.W. Bush used Super Bowl XXV to help shore up support for the first Iraq Invasion. As Steve Almond writes in Against Football, “In addition to images of soldiers in the desert during the pregame show, President Bush addressed the nation at halftime, describing the war as his Super Bowl.”

A president with Trump’s combination of impulsiveness and imbecility could easily launch an unpopular war (or two), along with any number of inane policies that he will then need to sell to the public in a “neutral” setting. But thanks to the ongoing player protests and uncooperative owners, he won’t have “his Super Bowl”—and therein lies his problem.

So, what is a pimp to do?

The Pimp’s Dilemma

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.

Even though the vast majority of Trump supporters are neither bosses nor millionaires, they can still imagine themselves as sub-apprentices or apprentices-in-the making.

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?

The Square Hustle

The violence of the pimp is emphasized in the genre of the confessional pimp memoir (though not quite enough). But what’s usually neglected is the state’s complicity in that violence. The pimp does not create the conditions that degrade the sex worker. The leaders of the legal world—the “squares”—are responsible for that.

Melissa Gira Grant explores the invention of the prostitute in her recent book Playing the Whore. Prostitution is often labeled the world’s oldest profession, but before the nineteenth century the word “whore” was used to describe women who “stepped out of the bounds of respectability” in ways that usually had nothing to do with having sex for money.

According to Grant, the label “prostitute” effectively created a “class” of person who could be more easily imagined, located, treated and controlled by the law: a degraded figure in need of rescue by the “noble few” who knew better. But empowering her—by, for instance, ensuring that she did not have to trade sexual exploitation and abuse in the streets for similar conditions in the workplace—was not the goal. Rather, the goal was to create a black-market regime of sexual labor in need of policing. And that, in turn, created no end of opportunities for pimps.

Slim’s mentor, Sweet Jones, clearly lays out this twisted dynamic in Pimp. After the attack on Pearl Harbor and the United States’ declaration of war against Japan, Jones argued that “the defense plants are gonna claim thousands of young potential whores. Those square bitches are gonna get those paychecks. They’ll get shitty independent. A pimp can’t turn them out.”

Heaven for a pimp, Sweet Jones argues, is “when there’s a big pool of raggedy, hungry young bitches.”

The pimp and the state both work to degrade the worker. Good jobs in the “square” world, together with basic worker protections and career security, would make the pimp’s job that much harder—and if such protections were extended to sex work proper, the pimp himself could become obsolete. But the state devotes a great deal of power and money to maintaining the punitive interdiction of sex work, together with a bevy of institutions dedicated to the “rescue” of sex workers. Here, too, there’s a clear, self-perpetuating politics of self-interest behind all the moral posturing: the more degraded and beleaguered the prostitute, the greater the forces necessary to “save” her. But how do you then reintegrate this degraded figure back into society? You don’t. This is why pimps can call their “stable” a “family” and have it mean something. But in the world of Robert Beck, that illusion had to eventually come to an end. A pimp is not an employer. He is not really running a business. So he falls back on the solution that many men have used to undermine women and workers: make them think they are crazy.

Retirement by Gaslight

The thoroughbred horse has reached what Richard C. Francis, author of Domesticated, calls an “evolutionary dead end.” Breeders have not produced a faster thoroughbred for decades.

Thoroughbreds have evolved “inordinately large hearts and lungs” to increase their aerobic capacity. They have evolved a huge chest cavity to make room for those larger organs, which then crowd the stomach and intestines, causing them to “shift around in hazardous ways.” The bodies of the thoroughbreds are “too large” relative to the legs and feet, making the animal “extremely top heavy.” And this, Francis writes, “goes a long way toward explaining the high frequency of leg injuries, often catastrophic.”

This is not the face of racing that the public sees. The early years of a racing horse’s career are glorious. As the horses get older, drugs are often used to keep them going. And when the thoroughbred comes to its end, quietly—away from the cameras, seersucker suits and sun hats —it is put down and perhaps later immortalized in statues, photos, or crappy movies.

The NFL player who sees a connection between himself and a poor kid in the ghetto appears nuts to many fans. But the working-class fan who thinks his interests align with those of billionaire owners is perfectly sane in their view.

In Pimp, Glass Top recommended retiring his obsolete thoroughbreds to mental asylums. He used a combination of ruses and drugs to convince them that they had gone insane. “I got a thousand ways to drive ’em goofy,” said Glass Top, “That last broad I flipped, I hung her out a fifth floor window. I had given her a jolt of pure cocaine so she’d wake up outside that window. I was holding her by both wrists. Her feet were dangling in the air. She opened her eyes. When she looked down she screamed like a scared baby.”

“She was screaming when they came to get her.”

Some have attributed NFL protests to a similar kind of insanity, stoked by the fervid imaginings of the players themselves. They are rebranded as “spoiled,” “entitled,” or just not that bright. The fan, meanwhile, is the paragon of reason and logical consistency.

This is the same fan who believes that paid patriotism is okay, but peaceful protest is not. This is the same fan who is eager to subsidize billionaire team owners, while labeling a dissenting player “spoiled” or “privileged.” And this is the same fan who is willing to watch the game despite scandals ranging from domestic violence, to prescription drug abuse, to the conspiracy of official silence surrounding the head-injury scandal. This fan is willing to accept all these contradictions and lies as just part of the game or as an unspecified price of doing business. And when the owner refuses to really “own” his players and put them in check, this fan is ready to boycott.

The NFL player who sees a connection between himself and a poor kid in the ghetto appears nuts to many fans. But the working-class fan who thinks his interests align with those of billionaire owners is perfectly sane in their view.

However, none of this wishful thinking will alter the fundamental shifts in the rules of engagement: the players can no longer “just play the game” the way the fans want them to. They know too much. The stadiums remain, but the air castles are gone. And this is probably just the beginning.


[*] Correction: This article has been revised to reflect the correct amount of the settlement the NFL paid over “minor traumatic brain injury” among its player. The settlement was for $765 million, not $765 billion.