TV

Netflix's Losers Celebrates Our Favorite Failures

The Netflix documentary series Losers focuses on sports' greatest losers and the lessons we can learn from them. It tells the stories of eight of the most unfortunate runners-up. It's about the human drama in losing, and the personal, physical and societal challenges athletes face.

Everyone loves a good loser, don't they? We admire them for their perseverance, their willingness to get back up and keep going in spite of the obvious.

But we don't celebrate them as we do victors. Usually, we pity them, their misery and misfortune, desperately wanting to avoid the same fate. Winners are bolded and underlined in the history books, not losers.

A recent Netflix documentary series titled Losers challenges this narrative, instead focusing on sports' greatest losers and the lessons we can take from them. Losers tells the stories of eight of history's most unfortunate runners-up. It revels in the human drama of losing and the personal, physical and societal challenges athletes face. The episodes range from stories of squandered talent and the most grueling of obstacles to gut-wrenching collapses and personal tribulations. It's about crumbling in the face of enormous odds, yet finding the strength to dust yourself off and try again.

Some of the stories are of athletes once on top but experience a sudden fall from glory like the case of Michael Bentt. Michael was a young boxing star in New York City, winning the heavyweight title in 1993. But in his first match after, he got a massive blow to the head and suffered a career-ending brain injury. Following his failure, he fell deep into depression, eventually attempting suicide.

Other losers covered squared off against monumental physical and mental struggles. Mauro Prosperi, an Italian marathoner, enters a 150-mile race in Morocco through the Sahara. During the race, he gets lost in a sandstorm that throws him off course. He must wander with no way back, surviving by drinking urine and eating raw bats. After days and hundreds of miles of wandering, he's miraculously found by soldiers in Algeria. Mauro survives but he's unable to adjust back to normal life.

Then there's the story of American musher Aliy Zirkle. She finished second in the Iditarod three consecutive years, but those losses pale in comparison to what she faced in 2016. She is hit from behind by a man on a snowmobile who then decides to come back toward her, severely injuring her and her dogs. The man, drunk at the time, is charged with reckless endangerment and attempted murder. Aliy not only must face him in court but also struggle with her own trauma, wondering if she'll compete again.

French figure skater Surya Bonaly fails not for misfortune brought on by her own miscues but from social pressures. As a black figure skater in an overwhelmingly white sport, she's held to a higher standard of skill and elegance. In the 1994 World Championships, Surya dominates her routine, and the gold looks certain. But in a shocking turn of events, she finishes second in a completely subjective choice by the judges. In the medal ceremony, she refuses to congratulate the gold medal winner and rips off her silver medal in disgust. It's not the image of a sore loser but one of frustration that she can't overcome a biased institution that will never see her as worthy of gold.

These stories form the emotional core of the series. All their feelings come off as raw and honest in a way we can earnestly empathize with. They're all strong distillations of the behind-the-scenes turmoil we rarely have access to.

An element that stands out, distinguishing Losers from most sports documentaries, is the series' use of animated reenactments to make the moments not caught on camera spectacularly come alive. This animation is best when highlighting the most dramatic scenes, notably Mauro eating bats, and the attack on Aliy. The animated reenactments serve a single purpose; they elicit a strong emotional response from the viewer. One can't help but feel disgusted for Mauro, or terror and anger for Aliy.

Losers is a subtle reprieve of American culture's fixation on winning at all costs. For many, it took facing serious hardship to realize winning wasn't everything. And when that's realized, they could compete again, or excel in other aspects of life not wholly concerned with sport. Mauro and Aliy dealt with the pain of almost dying, yet both found the strength to race again. To this day, neither has finished first, but it's the love of their sport that keeps them motivated. Surya moved on from competitive figure skating to inspire girls of color to participate in the sport. Michael became a writer, actor and boxing trainer for actors in boxing movies.

It's also a rejection that picking oneself up after losing isn't some Herculean accomplishment of individual grit that defines so much of sports storytelling; it's instead a product of hard work, luck, and strong support from people in your corner – for everyone profiled, overcoming the heartbreak and trauma after losing isn't a solitary effort. Aliy got the support of her fellow mushers and her beloved dogs. Michael and Jack needed all the help they could get from the tight-knit boxing and basketball communities. Their stories and the stories of everyone in this series are poignant reminders that life continues after losing and that there are some rewards greater than victory.

But, ultimately, Losers is a reminder of what makes sports so unique, and why we always come back to our favorite teams through the bad times. For those of us who aren't athletes at the top, it's a lot easier to identify with losers than champions. It's easier to place yourself in their shoes, to feel their heartbreak than it is to revel in someone else's glory. In a time and place where we're told winning is all that matters in sports and in so many other aspects of life, it's refreshing to hear from the much-maligned losers and how they learned to keep trudging forward.


Dan is a writer and thinker in this crazy, chaotic, stupid world. You can follow him on Twitter @danescalona77.


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Three Underrated Netflix Foreign-Films Worth Watching

The success of Roma should bring attention to the seriously underrated selection of foreign-language Netflix original films. Here are three other foreign films worth watching.

Variety.com

Roma has been quite the cinematic achievement for Netflix.

After a series of flops (think Bright and The Cloverfield Paradox), Alfonso Cuarón's film represents an exciting step forward for the platform's original content. Roma's success should also bring attention to the seriously underrated selection of fascinating and impactful foreign language Netflix originals.

Like Roma, many of these foreign language films boast compelling characters and storylines, aesthetically pleasing cinematography, and commentary on social issues in their respective cultures.

Happy as Lazzaro

Alice Rohrwacher's Happy as Lazzaro tells the story of Lazzaro, a friendly and hardworking sharecropper on the tobacco farming estate, Inviolata, in the 1970s. Lazzaro and his fellow sharecroppers live in deep poverty, always in debt and often going unpaid. He befriends the landowners' son, Tancredi, who, eager for adventure to spice up his cloistered and privileged existence, enlists Lazzaro to fake his own kidnapping. Eventually, the police come searching for Tancredi but instead discover destitute, slavery-like conditions.

As it happens, Lazzaro falls off a cliff only to miraculously wake up nearly 20 years later to discover the land and the manor are now empty. The sharecroppers have been replaced by immigrant day laborers from Africa and Eastern Europe. Lazzaro, desperately looking for Tancredi and his friends and family from Inviolata, ventures to a nearby city. He finds his former sharecropping community, still living in desperate poverty. Lazzaro eventually runs into Tancredi, who he finds in a dramatically worse state than years before.

Happy as Lazzaro is worth watching for its gorgeous cinematography alone, but its use of magical realism is the real attraction. These fantastical elements sometimes blur the line between dreams and the real world. Lazzaro is often transfixed by his imagination and dream-like visions — his method of escapism.

At its core, Happy as Lazzaro about the inescapable class divisions in Italian society. Lazzaro and the sharecropping community are constantly exploited by the wealthy landowners with no chance to escape their oppressive economic situation. The relationship between Lazzaro and Tancredi can't escape the rich-poor class dynamic, as Lazzaro understands he serves Tancredi, not the other way around. Even when years later Lazzaro discovers his family from the village in the city, they haven't progressed economically at all. They live in an empty water tower by the train tracks, surviving by scamming people on the street. Tancredi is often seen wearing a Walkman, whilst Lazzaro wears the same tattered clothes. Not only are they of a different class but seemingly from a different century.

Happy as Lazzaro makes an undeniable political point. It's an indictment of how the flow of global capital has racked the lives of the Italian working class. Lazzaro, no matter how decent, hardworking, and honest he is, will never escape the fate consigned to him by economic forces outside his control.

Time Share

Directed by Mexican filmmaker Sebastian Hoffman, Time Share is the story of a couple, Pedro and Eva, and their young son, embarking on a much-needed vacation. Very quickly, what should be a week in paradise, goes from bad to worse. The resort accidentally books another family in their timeshare and, later, Pedro breaks his nose while playing tennis. Eventually, Pedro suspects the resort is plotting against his family.

Time Share is a pointed criticism and a darkly funny satire of the idea of the "dream" vacation and corporate culture. When the time share is double booked, Pedro meets with a resort manager to try to rectify the problem. Throughout, the manager repeats the same script, telling Pedro that it's the resort's job to make "your dreams come true." This just adds to the absurdity and the hopelessness of dealing with inept, out of touch customer service.

It's a takedown of corporate culture is revealed most poignantly through two resort workers, Andres and Gloria. Andres works downstairs in the laundry, usually quietly going about his business. He's a veteran at the resort, but has been slow to adjust to the culture pushed by the resort's new ownership. No longer respected by anyone, he's completely broken down by his job. Gloria, his wife, is also reeling from a recent personal tragedy. In one scene, Tom (RJ Mitte), a motivational speaker brought in by the company, implores her that she is part of the "Everfields [the resort chain] family" and they will do anything she needs. But we're left feeling that these sentiments of family are just a smokescreen to get their employees to pledge loyalty to a faceless corporation.

The film is also visually striking with an eerie neon glow in almost every scene. But what makes it so terrifyingly relatable is the devastating lampooning of the hellish vacation everyone's experienced, and corporations who try to be your "friend" just to sell you something.

And Breathe Normally

This film from Iceland follows the lives of two women facing vastly different circumstances whose lives intersect after a chance encounter. One woman, Lara, is a single mom battling unemployment and drug addiction. The other, Adja, is an asylum-seeker from Guinea-Bissau attempting to reunite with her family in Canada. While training to become a border guard Lara encounters Adja trying to pass through an airport checkpoint with a fake passport. Adja is taken into custody, and begins an arduous process through the Icelandic immigration system. One day, Lara is desperate to find her five-year-old son, Eldar, who has run off after his cat. After hours searching, she finds him with Adja who helped Eldar find the cat. Lara reluctantly offers to give her a ride back to the refugee center, and from there their relationship begins, Lara now resolved to help Adja get to Canada.

And Breathe Normally illustrates the dehumanizing bureaucracy surrounding the immigration process and shows the desperate measures migrants will take to get to their destination. Adja pays a smuggler to bring her to Canada on a cargo ship but declines at the last minute. It also starkly reveals the tremendous difficulties placed upon people by the vicious cycles of unemployment, addiction, evictions and custody battles. Lara's only way out is to take a job she soon finds ethically problematic. In a film of bleak circumstances set to the backdrop of a drab Icelandic landscape, Eldar stands out. His innocence and curiosity are especially endearing. He too develops a relationship with Adja, despite the language barrier.

In the end, it asks a crucial question of the viewer: What lengths are you willing to go when your values and someone else's life is on the line?

These three films contain themes and stories strongly connected to the countries from where they come, but are also extremely relevant to American audiences. They are stories of poverty and exploitation, of vacations gone terribly wrong, of migration and refugees, of unemployment and drug addiction, of unlikely relationships. They are stories of characters we can identify and empathize with. They are stories of our common humanity.


Dan is a writer and occasional optimist in this chaotic, stupid world. You can follow him on Twitter @danescalona77.


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Killer Mike Hits and Misses in 'Trigger Warning'

The rapper delivers a brash, uncompromising look at political and racial issues in both America and the black community in his Netflix series, but leaves something to be desired.

If you saw a soft drink at the grocery store called "Crip-a-Cola" that was produced in a Crip trap house, would you buy it?

That's just the question rapper and Run the Jewels MC Michael "Killer Mike" Render asks in an episode of his new Netflix series Trigger Warning. In the episode, Killer Mike examines the privilege of white street gangs like the Hell's Angels compared to black street gangs like the Bloods and Crips; the privilege being that the Hells Angels can make money off their brand whilst black street gangs can't and don't. This leads Mike to approach an Atlanta Crips crew with a plan to sell their own soda.

In Trigger Warning, Killer Mike delivers a brash, brutally honest and righteous take on the political and social tension in America and the black community — much like the rhymes his fans are familiar with him dropping. Throughout, Mike takes on sacred cows like societal attitudes toward the black church and black capitalism. Much of it speaks to the broader point Mike hammers home: "Kill Your Masters," an ethic of individualism and community that rejects authority.

In the first episode of the series, Mike challenges himself to consume products sold only at black-run businesses for 36 hours. This turns out to be more difficult than expected even in a Mecca of black culture like Atlanta. He can't even eat at a local barbecue joint because the pork didn't come from a black-owned farm and he can't buy weed since it was presumably grown by white people in California. It's an experience that leaves him longing for the heyday of black commerce that his parents and grandparents enjoyed. It's part of the show's objective to honestly discuss the issues facing the black community. It's also strongly connected to Killer Mike's desire to educate white audiences on real black history, especially those in his own fanbase.

So much of what makes it a worthwhile watch are the authentic conversations Mike has with folks. He discusses, for example, how the black church has too often failed the community and the need to create a new black spirituality that recognizes the beauty and excellence of black people. It's valuable to see these sort of topics talked about when such issues are rarely analyzed honestly in the mainstream media.

The series has an unmistakable resemblance to Comedy Central's Nathan For You — just a more politically-charged version of. It's filled with the same reality TV, mockumentary vibe, with cringey situations, and absurd social experiments that criticize cultural norms. In one episode, Mike invites an eclectic group consisting of a white nationalist, a Juggalo, a Black Lives Matter activist, a Jewish Renaissance fair aficionado, and a Native American Moor to perform a song before an RTJ show. During the recording session, the white nationalist refers to himself as a "white N-word" leading to a heated discussion about the use of the word. Later on, the white nationalist says it before an audience of hundreds, quickly silencing the crowd. The on-screen awkwardness is palpable.

These moments just add to the show's absurd nature.

Still, Trigger Warning leaves something to be desired. It's often provocative just for the sake of being provocative. The scene of the white nationalist blurting out the N-word is one case of this. It's done to shock viewers and contains no bigger lesson than "people on political extremes will say offensive things sometimes."

Sometimes the point he's attempting to make falls flat either because it's confusing or it lacks the political power typical of the rapper and political activist. Often, it comes off as reality TV, but it's not clear if it's done so to satirize the medium. In the final episode, Mike creates a fake new country called New Africa to protest the political divisions in America. It's an ambitious idea to discuss the legacy of black nationalism in the black community, but ends up as an uninspiring call for unity. One can't help but find these calls for unity coming off empty in the current political environment. His criticisms of the education system goes no further than: schools don't prioritize vocational skills enough. There's nothing about the inequities in school funding or public school privatization.

Killer Mike knocks it out of the park in some episodes with a frank look at hard-hitting issues in black America with his usual swaggering and uncompromising attitude. Other times, the show lacks a clear direction with muddled political and social commentary, but has a few provocative scenes to keep the audience entertained for 25 minutes. It's certainly something fans of Run The Jewels would enjoy checking out, and overall it's a unique entry into the Netflix original nonfiction canon.


Dan is a writer and occasional optimist. You can follow on Twitter @danescalona77.


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Good Riddance, Chief Wahoo

The Cleveland Indians will no longer feature the racist logo and caricature of Native Americans on their uniforms, concluding a dark chapter in the sport's history.

Credit: Cleveland.com

After nearly 70 years, the most ridiculously racist logo in American sports is kaput.

Just before Thanksgiving, the Cleveland Indians unveiled their 2019 uniforms without Chief Wahoo, finally throwing the infamous Native American caricature into the dumpster fire of history. It was fitting irony that Chief Wahoo's last game on a Cleveland uniform was on Indigenous People's Day, as the Indians were swept out of the playoffs by the Houston Astros.

Chief Wahoo has been a black mark on America's pastime for many years now, similar to past baseball shames like the Color Line, the Black Sox scandal, or PED use. The logo debuted in 1947, and for 71 years it lingered on, drawing comparisons to the racist caricatures of black people from the 19th century.

Let's Go Tribe

I'm not an Indians fan, nor do I have any connection to Cleveland, so I can't speak to the fanbase's reaction to the logo's demise. But I can tell you what the logo meant to me as a baseball fan. In seventh grade, I learned about the United States' treatment of its indigenous people and the debate over Native American mascots. I recall being viscerally upset about Chief Wahoo. By the time I was a teenager, I was well aware of the mascot's status as a demeaning depiction of Native Americans based on harmful stereotypes.

To this day, whenever I see Wahoo's grinning, Sambo-like smile, there's always a sharp twinge of embarrassment. What bothered me most, however, was how much its continued existence stood in contrast to the sport's professed values. Baseball fans are always told about the inspirational story of Jackie Robinson and how it represents baseball constantly striving toward inclusivity. That Wahoo remained as long as he did showed the emptiness of those values.

My own disgust towards the logo was most plainly evident during the 2016 World Series. As a Cubs fan since childhood, the Series meant a lot to me, personally. For seven games, I was an emotional wreck, sweating and nail biting on each pitch. It's unlikely anything in my life as a sports fan will surpass the unbridled joy I felt when the curse was broken. It was a moment made so much sweeter, remarking on the fact that the Cubs defeated the Indians and their logo.

Throughout the series, I always hated seeing non-Native Americans in the stands with their faces painted red and adorned with fake headdresses. A small but indelible memory I have during that World Series was in Game 6, when Cubs shortstop Addison Russell slugged a dramatic grand slam. As the ball sailed out to the center field bleachers, I saw a fan brandishing a protest sign reading "No DAPL" — a reference to the struggle against the Dakota Access Pipeline. It was impossible for me not to notice the dichotomy, a team proudly displaying a symbol of historical oppression while members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe were besieged by a water cannon just for standing up to protect their ancestral lands.

What I realized in that moment was what indigenous people themselves had known for decades regarding Chief Wahoo. In the 1970s, indigenous activists protested the logo outside Indians games, and there have been protests every opening day since. They were especially prominent in Cleveland's last two World Series appearances. In 2000, the Penobscot Indian Nation formally called on the team to ditch the logo. Almost two decades later, the public pressure finally worked.

Still, even with Wahoo retired, offensive representations of Native Americans in sports are still too prevalent. After all, Washington's NFL team is still called the "Redskins" and the Atlanta Braves still do the tomahawk chop.

As someone with no tribal ancestry, I feel it's important to take a stand over Native American logos and mascots but to do so without being offended on behalf of indigenous people. It's much more valuable to allow authentic voices to lead the debate.

Even if racist sports logos aren't a life or death issue, as long as names like "Redskins" persist, Native Americans will never have the respect and dignity they deserve in our society. Defenders of these inaccurate and bigoted characters say they honor Native people, but what a poor way to celebrate the original inhabitants of this country. Instead, why not honor indigenous people by learning about the diverse tribal customs and history, celebrating their many contributions, shedding light on the challenges those communities face, and protecting their lands from exploitation?

Baseball's history has been one of progress from racism and discrimination toward equality and inclusion — with many starts and stops along the way. The sport has often been ahead of the rest of the nation on both positive and negative social trends. The major leagues were segregated just as segregation was legally sanctioned, and baseball was integrated years before the passage of the Civil Rights Act. And now, the MLB is ahead of the NFL when it comes to getting rid of offensive caricatures of Native Americans. Baseball fans should relish that the shame of Cleveland's racist logo is a thing of the past.

Good riddance, Chief Wahoo!


Dan is a writer and occasional optimist in this strange, chaotic world. You can follow him on Twitter @danescalona77.



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Confessions of a Conflicted NFL Fan

Support for the national anthem protests and anger at the NFL's treatment of Colin Kaepernick have created a major conflict for one fan.

THEARON W. HENDERSON/GETTY IMAGES

Football has been a huge part of my life for as long I can remember, but in the last two years, my interest, especially in the NFL, has waned — replaced by stronger interests in baseball, basketball and soccer. I'd be lying if I neglected to mention that my disinterest is more intimately connected to my political qualms with the NFL than with the sport itself. I've been dismayed by the league's reaction and many fans' anger toward Colin Kaepernick's protest against police brutality and racial inequality, and the depiction of these protests as unpatriotic displays by ungrateful players.

http://www.thepostgame.com/

This has created a major conflict for me; a conflict made all the more painful because of how much football has meant to me throughout my life and the indelible memories it's created. I became a football fan when I was seven years old, and that owes much to the influence of my dad. Growing up in Mexico City in the 1970s, he was a huge Steelers fan. As a kid, I was regaled with tales of the feared "Iron Curtain" Pittsburgh defense. My earliest memory as a football fan was Super Bowl XXXVI. For a reason I can't remember, I chose to root for the Rams. Of course, Tom Brady rallied the Pats to victory, and I was so overcome with heartbreak I bawled the rest of the night; my first exposure to the unnecessary heartbreak caused by being a sports fan.

Later on, my dad introduced me to the NFL films Super Bowl documentaries. I was captivated by Staubach and Bradshaw and compared them to Greek heroes like Jason and Odysseus. Then, with Madden on GameCube, came knowledge of NFL play books. I became a master of the post and the shallow cross. Soon enough, my notebooks were littered with wild diagrams of inconceivable passing plays like Spider 2Y Banana. Eventually, I became a passionate Bears fan (my hometown team) after watching a VHS tape of the 1985 Super Bowl win. I was enamored with the team's collection of wild characters, and I've been a perpetually-disappointed fan ever since.

Throughout my childhood and teenage years, I remember looking forward to the college and pro games all week during the fall. When I went to college, I didn't watch the same amount of football I had earlier, but I still considered myself a fan, especially as a student at a Big Ten university. But, it was also during this time that I developed a more critical understanding of the sport. I became a supporter of compensating college athletes, and angry with the NFL's covering up football's link with concussions and CTE. These criticisms reached their apex with Kaepernick's protest and its aftermath.

In fact, it was then where I first saw a correlation between the leftward shift in my politics since the election of Donald Trump and my feelings toward football. This political evolution, spurred on by the rise of right-wing populism, has improved my understanding of race and racism in America and has informed the way I've reacted to the Kaepernick saga. Not only do I support him because of free speech considerations, I fully support the reason for his protest. Police brutality against black people in this country is one of the defining racial issues of the current era, and to frame his protest as being against the anthem or the flag is to intentionally erase the content of his message.

The reaction against Kaepernick, from that of the average NFL fan to President Trump's own comments, has functioned as a cudgel, preventing a black football player from using his platform to push a politically inconvenient position to a large percentage of Americans. The fact that he doesn't have a job in the league and likely never will again is a signal to every other player to just "shut up and dribble." It's a reminder that the owners rule the league and that one must keep them happy if one wants to play.

The public outcry against Kaepernick also carries with it an endorsement of a league that explicitly supports fealty to a military-centric conception of patriotism in which the highest form of devotion to one's country is to serve in the military or law enforcement. These ideas of patriotism can certainly be found in other sports, but no other league is as committed to maintaining around these ideals as the NFL. Patriotism and the military are central to the NFL's conception of itself. Watch any NFL game and this is impossible to miss, from the unfurling of a field-sized American flag to the B-2 Spirit flyovers to the Pentagon paying the league to constantly promote the military. I am uncomfortable with this sort of patriotism. All too often it's used to justify wars and clamp down on dissent, and there's an unmistakable connection between our military-based patriotic fervor and the misrepresentation of Kaepernick's protest against police brutality as anti-American. What's happened is that American ideals have been conflated with the symbols traditionally used to represent them. In the modern American psyche, the flag, the military, and the anthem function as the unassailable living embodiments of freedom and liberty. The NFL, while far from the only culprit, shares a huge portion of the responsibility for creating this cognitive lapse and through it, gains the ability to silence its most outspoken employees.

www.collinsflags.com

All that said, this shouldn't be taken as an indictment of everyone who watches and enjoys football. Progressive-minded people can still like the NFL, while remaining critical of the league's more problematic aspects. But, this certainly is an indictment of those who see any of these criticisms of the NFL as a plot to destroy football by needlessly inserting politics into it. To be an uncritical NFL fan, especially in light of the events of the last two years, is to make an undeniable ideological point.

You can dismiss all these critiques of football as just "politicizing" sports, but to this I answer: I have not politicized anything. The NFL has been political for a long time.

***

So, what's to be done about all this? Should I really boycott football and the NFL?

My answer: no, I will not be boycotting football and the NFL. Despite everything I've said above, I've never seriously considered doing so.

I still appreciate the community that football fosters, and I would never want to cut myself off from watching the game with a group of friends or family. Football is still a fun subject to mindlessly bicker about with friends. I still want to continue to debate the quantum physics of what constitutes a catch. And, I like the idea of shutting off my brain for a few hours on a Sunday afternoon to watch the Bears-Packers game.

I don't want everything in my life to be oriented around political considerations. That just seems exhausting and downright joyless, especially when my mental energy should be devoted to more consequential issues. I don't want my politics to blend so severely with the culture that the difference between the two is indistinguishable, however valuable looking at culture through a political lens may be.

So, I'll continue to watch. And I'll continue to criticize the league for its performative patriotism and the fact that Colin Kaepernick still does not have a job. It may sound hypocritical to consume a product I vehemently criticize, but there will always be things we feel guilty about consuming. That's just the reality we live in.


Dan is a Chicago-based writer and occasional optimist. His writing has been featured in the Chicago Tribune and The Classical. You can follow him on Twitter @danescalona77.