I grew up in football house. A lot of Americans say that as a way of conveying their family’s love for the game, but I mean it more literally. My dad played for ten years in the NFL, most of it for Pittsburgh Steelers, where he was part of a team that won four Super Bowl rings.
Upon walking away from the game, he quickly transitioned to college coaching, which was his main gig for the remainder of his short life, as well as a career path that shaped my entire childhood.
Hardly a week went by where I didn’t encounter some of my dad’s hulking football players in person. I’d see them before and after games, and on random Saturday mornings during the off-season when my dad would take me to ‘workout’ with him. When I was a little kid, this meant running around in the football building while my jock dad was exercising.
I probably met the vast majority of young men who wore a Michigan State football uniform during the 1980s, and I used to see the defensive linemen – who my dad called ‘his players’ or ‘his guys’ – more often than I saw my relatives on the East Coast.
I remember annoying them in the weight room, talking their ears off on bowl game trips, and taking pictures with them and my dad at spring training events. And I remember both players and coaching assistants occasionally coming to my house for dinner, where my mom would impress everyone with her formidable culinary skills (my cousin Russell, in his thick Rhode Island Italian accent, fondly calls her “Mahtha Fuckin Stewaht.”)
One of the things I learned early on about these giant strangers in my life was that, unlike me and my kid brother who both grew up cushy in a brand new house, a lot of my dad’s players grew up with much less. A hell of a lot less.
When I got a little older, I came to understand and appreciate the true luck of my privileged background based on the stories I heard from some of his players, or the ones he told me about them in confidence.
I heard about what it was like to be a teenager helping to raise nine younger siblings in the Southside of Chicago, without a cent to your name and a parent in jail. Or being raised flat broke out in the sticks of mid-Michigan, having to fistfight your deadbeat dad when he was drunk on a bender, and constantly be forced to wear hand-me-down shoes that didn’t fit your ever-growing feet.
As a suburban kid, I had no genuine frame of reference through which I could truly understand their poverty. All I could do was listen and humbly pay attention. But as a chubby kid, I certainly understood food. And despite whatever variations I heard in these real anecdotes about growing up rough, what I remember most were the stories about food.
Like some of ‘his guys’ routinely going to bed without it when they were kids, or having nothing in their kitchen to eat for breakfast. Or trying to make it through afternoon football practices or weightlifting sessions with only the small, free school lunch in your belly, which you were shamed into requesting each day when you got to the front of the cafeteria line. And on more than one occasion, hearing about how McDonalds was the main source of someone’s childhood meals, either because it was cheap or because there was simply nobody at home to cook for them. Or both.
To me and my cookie-stuffed pre-teen face, having to grow up in those ways was almost inconceivable and it made me so sad to hear about it. Because it is sad. It’s a travesty. And I could read that same sentiment on my dad’s face, or in his voice when he recounted such tales or told me about the situations in which they were revealed to him.
After all, food is an inevitable topic for coaches, particularly when your job is teaching incredibly large people how to sculpt, build and move their bodies in very distinctive ways. It’s also a frequent concern for football players, especially the big guys, because they need a lot of fuel and they’re almost always hungry.
For scholarship athletes who grow up poor and without food security, getting a free meal plan at their university often means getting to eat three square meals a day for the first time in their lives. But even for someone like my dad, who grew up working class and got a full ride to college for football, he was always hungry at night and often didn’t have money to buy food.
That is because, despite being a money-grubbing financial juggernaut, the NCAA does not pay its players and it also bans scholarship athletes at Division I schools from earning endorsements or being employed during the semester in which they compete (up until 1997, employment was banned altogether).
If one competes in multiple collegiate sports, like many scholarship athletes do, that means having no legal source of income for the entire academic year (my dad used to hustle people at pool), as well as no ability to offer paid private lessons or instruction that are advertised in any way. In the event that an athlete is able to find work during their off-season semester, the NCAA puts a cap of the maximum amount they can earn per year.
Consequently, unless one’s team is lucky enough to receive prize money that can be dispersed amongst players (for whatever arbitrary fucking reason the NCAA decided that’s ok), an athlete who is poor or working class might very well find themselves going hungry at some point during the year.
Despite hating much of what college football represents and embodies these days, I’ve often thought about my dad’s football players over the years, and what it must be like to be a full-time college athlete who never has enough money in their pockets or enough food to eat. But, recently, few things have brought that issue into focus for me as sharply as watching the ever-ignoble Donald Trump manage to somehow fuck up something as profoundly simple as a celebratory dinner for college football players at the White House. Twice.
For anyone who rightly avoids following American politics in the name of decency or self-care, the current president of the United States decided that he would honor this year’s national championship football team, the Clemson Tigers, with a meal that consisted of a giant fast food buffet. McDonalds. Wendy’s. The works.
With the White House cooking staff temporarily furloughed during Trump’s disastrous month-long partial shutdown of federal government, the former mail order steak Salesman-in-Chief thought it would be clever to simply order a truckload of cheap fast food instead of having the event catered by a company that could properly feed the White House’s guests of honour.
Pictures from the event show Trump presiding over the spread with his patented smarmier-than-thou grin and a look of genuine self-satisfaction at the wonder he created. The juxtaposition of Trump in a gilded room filled with cheeseburgers – under the watchful eye of the Abe Lincoln portrait behind him – was truly a scene best described as a real life Dead Kennedys album cover, albeit unintentionally and without the slightest bit of irony.
As if to prove that his ostensibly witty fast food move wasn’t just another in a series of his calloused, blunderous fuck ups, the former WWE Cameo-in-Chief decided to double down with hamberder buffet redux convened to celebrate the other championship-winning collegiate football team, the North Dakota State Bison. Before serving the already cold food to his guests, Trump joked with the team and told reporters that they (presumably everyone in the room) like “American companies,” which is why he’s serving “all-American food”.
While critics rightly pounced on both of the events as gawdy displays of Trump’s classlessness and egotistical theatrics – cheeseburger buffet to own the libs! – I couldn’t help thinking about the indignity of being invited to the White House, after a lifetime of work that culminates in the greatest victory in your sport, only to be served a cold pile of burgers and fries instead of a grand meal that is befitting of your achievement, let alone the setting itself.
I wondered how many people in that room were like some of my dad’s players who barely scraped by, or went by hungry, or had to reluctantly rely on that same fast food for daily sustenance. All hoping to one day – maybe – getting the chance to excel at their sport, earn a college scholarship, win a championship, and bask in a rare moment of being honoured for their achievements.
I thought about the indignity of robbing them of a delicious meal, not to mention the once-in-a-lifetime moment that they could have, and should have, experienced as fine dining guests in the White House.
At the end of the day, one doesn’t have to resort to food shaming or class-based insults about dietary preferences to point out the basic fact that there is nothing dignified about a fucking McDonald’s cheeseburger, even if you arrange a pile of them *just so* on a bonafide silver platter.
In fact, the contrast just makes it worse. Because when the entire point of a presidential event is to dignify one’s guests – in this case honouring football players for their achievements – it’s hardly asking much for dignity to be included on the menu. Anything less leaves us all with hunger pangs.
Photograph courtesy of Bex Walton. Published under a Creative Commons license.