Michael Kasdan wonders what will happen as morality continues to collide with the sports entertainment complex we call The National Football League. Do fans care enough to really care?
I’m here to discuss the morality of the NFL and how that impacts on you, the fan. Are you still awake? I didn’t lose you yet? I thought I did. Because discussing the morality of being a fan in the NFL could perceived as a giant snooze fest. (Maybe afterwards, we can discuss political redistricting or campaign finance reform?!)
But stay with me here for a moment. The NFL is the most popular and lucrative sports league in the U.S. We talk about the NFL almost 52 weeks a year. However, many of the issues that are now spurring deep and serious conversations are the so-called “off-the-field issues”: domestic violence, concussions, safety and serious health concerns with a violent sport, performance enhancing drugs, and bullying, to name a few.
We are upset!
But what were you doing last Sunday and Monday Night? Tailgating with buddies and then piling into the stadium? Camping out on the couch glued to the television? Furiously checking your fantasy football live scoring? Or were you engaging in an internal struggle with the morality of being a fan? I’d venture to say that for most of us it wasn’t the latter. I mean, hello!? It was Week One of The National Football League! (“Are you ready for some Footbaaaaall?!”)
The NFL is a money-printing entertainment juggernaut, and its fans are passionate, legion, and 100% hooked. As Steve Almond wrote in his book, Against Football:
“Football is like the Doritos of sport: It’s been engineered to hit our bliss point.”
He’s right. Pro Football is lapping the rest of the pro sports fields in terms of popularity and financial success. It is modern day bread and circus.
Like the gladiators of the past and the Running Man of the future, NFL football is a combination of athletic grace, speed and power with complex and cerebral strategies and counter-strategies. Oh, and I almost forgot, serious hard-hitting. Not to mention the drama. It’s the Shady McCoy jump cut, the mad genius of Bill Belichek, the bone-crunching hit by Ronnie Lott. It’s a thrilling game to watch.
There is also a scarceness that elevates the importance of each Sunday. There are only 16 games, so every game counts. The NFL newscycle now pervades our entire week, as well as the off-season. The NFL draft is a three day prime-time event. And the game itself has been gamefied through the wildly popular fantasy football leagues, which invests fans in every game on the schedule, not just those of their favorite team.
The NFL wields remarkable market power. Perhaps the most lucrative non-profit entity the world has ever seen, with revenues of $10 billion per year, the NFL nonetheless uses its leverage to force local tax-payers to foot the bill for its new stadiums. This year they are even forcing the SuperBowl halftime musical acts to pay the League for the opportunity to perform! The NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell makes a shocking $44 million per year.
And we kneel before its altar. And we pray. “Here we are now. Entertain us.”
Despite the fact that the NFL continues to botch its responses on serious issues arising from the sport, continues to be on the wrong side of a slew of serious moral issues, and epitomizes corporate greed to the extreme, the NFL is more popular than ever. As Bill Simmons of Grantland wrote in a recent article, for the vast majority of fans there is a dissociative quality – we don’t care enough to really care. We love the game, no matter its health and social concerns:
We just want to watch football. We put up with everything else. It’s just in the way.
We don’t care that Josh Gordon will probably lose a year of his professional career because he would have been better off popping 10 Toradols a day instead of puffing two different joints.
We don’t care that my generation grew up dreaming about playing in the NFL, only now, those same people are raising a new generation of kids that either (a) aren’t being allowed to play football for safety reasons, (b) are being allowed to play football, but only after lots of soul-searching and flip-flopping by the parents (an evolving process), (c) play football because it’s a potential escape from whatever place they’re trying to leave, or (d) play football in a town or city that lives and dies with football and wouldn’t have it any other way. There’s no right answer, but it’s infinitely more complicated than it used to be. Are these role models? Do we want our kids to grow up like them? When Sundays roll around, we don’t really care.
We don’t care that the league claims to care about player safety, but it’s still cranking out that debilitating Thursday-night schedule and forcing teams to grind out two games in five days.
We don’t care that the league doesn’t seem to realize that, if it made an HONEST effort to clean up football from a painkiller-PED-steroid standpoint, there’s a chance we wouldn’t have as many concussions (because the players wouldn’t be quite as fast and strong) or as many off-field incidents (because the players wouldn’t be hormone yo-yos).
We don’t care that Wes Welker should retire right now, that there’s absolutely no way he should play football again after his last concussion, that he’s a 2022 Real Sports segment waiting to happen … and yet you know he’ll be out there in Week 6.
We care about what happened with Ray Rice, and how it was handled … but not nearly enough to stop watching football, right?
And that’s why the National Football League remains America’s true pastime, a reality that reflects our own faults more than we want to admit.
So the big money question that I’ve been struggling with lately is: What, if anything, happens when moral and social issues run up against an entertainment beast like the NFL?
Sure, we talk and we can be outraged at the way the league drags its feet on the issue of concussions or addressing domestic violence. But so what? In the end, we still support the product. Entertainment over ethics. Right?
The New York Times Magazine Ethicist column Is It Wrong To Watch Football by Chuck Klosterman recently pondered a part of this question, focusing only on the issue of concussions and dementia. He asked whether it is “ethical to support a league that seems to know it is detrimental to the health of its participants,” and if so how we should react as fans? Klosterman concluded that because pro athletes choose to participate in exchange for massive financial rewards and because he can accept the fact that we, the fans, love something that is inherently dangerous, that therefore it is not wrong to watch football.
The ethical question posed by Klosterman is a very difficult one. Heck, it’s hard to even begin to think carefully about it, because you have to first try to put aside how awesome it is to watch football. And it doesn’t get any easier to consider the morality of being an NFL fan when you add other troubling issues to the issue of concussions that Klosterman was considering. Issues like the growing wave of NFL players engaging in violent behavior. When you consider that in the mix, does that make it wrong to watch football?
And what if it did? If we felt it was wrong to watch football or that football required serious changes, what do we do then?
The only way to force change in the NFL – or express discontent with the sport and those running it – is to hit ’em in the pocketbook:
Stop buying the jerseys.
Stop going to games.
Stop watching the games.
We know this.
At the time of the Miami Dolphin’s bullying scandal, the New York Times wrote in its article, Time for NFL Sponsors To Demand Change:
The N.F.L. is a $10 billion behemoth, the largest show in American sports. It’s fueled by corporate dollars, and without those steady infusions, the engine would stop running. If the big companies stopped advertising, television channels would get spooked and the N.F.L. would be forced to make systemic changes . . . If so moved, corporate sponsors of the league and team could threaten a direct outcome unmatched by legal avenues or political pressure:
The NFL and its teams eclipsed $1 billion in corporate sponsorship revenue during 2013, according to tracking service IEG. It’s a fraction of the NFL’s annual television earnings, which bring in more than $5 billion per year, but still one of the league’s top three money-makers along with ticket sales. The league’s sponsorship deal with PepsiCo Inc. alone generates nearly $90 million annually.
When discussing the present controversy about the name of the Washington R*dskins, ESPN similarly wrote that only the threat of lost revenues will drive change:
What a wild concept: Envisioning action from America’s money-grubbing corporations to impact change on a moral/social issue. It doesn’t seem particularly likely at the moment.
We know this, but it hasn’t happened to date. Not even a little bit. The League is flush with revenues and growing more and more powerful. Its popularity is at an all time high. That doesn’t seem likely to change anytime soon. We still watch games on television, buy tickets, soak up the advertisements of the sponsors.
No doubt, this has been a difficult period for the NFL—in the last year it has dealt with the Miami Dolphins bullying scandal, massive questions as to the safety of the sport and lawsuits raised by former players with serious and lasting injuries, and most recently serious issues of off-the-field violence committed by its players and the failure of the league to seriously address it. In the wake of the Ray Rice domestic violence story, the voices of anger have grown shriller still, with many calling for Commissioner Goodell to be fired or to resign: #GoodellMustGo was trending on Twitter. There were many ReTweets. So, you see, it was a social media social movement!
But still, we watch. And still the sponsors sponsor. And still the dollars come in.
The owners are happy—they are making money hand over fist. NFL franchises are some of most prestigious vanity items in the world (Ask Jerry Jones!). The players are happy—they are famous, they make gobs of money playing a game, and despite the health and safety risks that they may feel down the road, life is pretty good at the moment.
And we— the fans—we have the game. The unique blend of athletic power and military strategery. The tailgating, the picking games against the spread, the fantasy sports, the SuperBowl parties. It’s a perfectly packaged combination of all the wonderful things we crave in a sport. And in the end, none of the difficult moral issues we’ve been talking about it makes us watch less football on Sundays. There are perhaps a few that may give it up on moral grounds, but those are few and far between and not enough to make any serious impact on the game.
Perhaps its a failure of imagination, but I cannot at this point imagine pro football wilting and withering away. Perhaps Commissioner Goodell will take the fall for these recent miscues, or perhaps he won’t have to. But I don’t think we are at a point where any drastic change is on the horizon. Nor can I imagine it evolving into some kindler gentler game. I just don’t see it. The fans aren’t going anywhere, and neither is the NFL. Football has replaced baseball as the American Game. The NFL today is part of our American fabric, a notch above even apple pie.
Though I do not see any serious change on the horizon for the NFL in the near future, I’ll concede that if we look closely enough we may be seeing some fraying around the edges. I have not lived in any other era but this one, but I do feel that we are beginning to grapple with, think about, and discuss the troubling issues of health and safety, violence and misconduct, and their connection to the NFL more so than ever before. Who knows where that discussion and exploration may one day lead.
Right now though, when you’re done reading this article (and you’re pretty close right now), you’re probably going to gear up to watch some NFL football. Perhaps on Sunday with the family, or maybe get together after work with the guys for Monday Night Football. Week Two is upon us, and “All your rowdy friends, are here on Monday Night!”
We’d love to hear YOUR views in the comments on whether you agree. Do you have moral/ethical problems with the NFL or pro football as a fan? Is this a sea-change for the NFL, or just background noise that is drowned out by our televisions when we tune in to watch the games.
(Photo Credit: Ben Margot/Associated Press)