Sunday, February 3, is the National Football League’s Super Bowl. I have a love/hate relationship with the sport my friends and I, tongue-in-cheek, call “murderball.” On the one hand, I’m an avid football fan and a fantasy-sports aficionado. At the same time, it’s obvious that the game in general, and the NFL in particular, has a dark side.
The Super Bowl highlights the reasons for my ambivalence chiefly because the game’s conclusion will subject viewers to an annual absurdity. The players in this game will have shed their blood, sweat, and tears throughout hundreds of hours of intense training, and jeopardized their physical and mental health over the course of at least twenty grueling games of football played at the highest intensity possible. For that, the winning players will earn the right to watch as NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell congratulates them on becoming “world champions” of a sport played only in America, before presenting the Vince Lombardi trophy to…the team’s owner. Except for the publicly-owned Green Bay Packers’ victory in 2011, from 2007 to 2018 the owners of the Colts, Giants, Steelers, Saints, Giants again, Ravens, Seahawks, Patriots, Broncos, Patriots again, and Eagles all received the trophy first. It is a well-established custom.
There might be no better emblem of America’s cultural decline than the fact that this is all considered perfectly normal. Much like the Oscars three weeks later, the Super Bowl is a yearly ritual in which rich people swap gifts amongst themselves while trading insipid, obligatory compliments. As Rowan Atkinson bewails in one of his stage acts, “What could be more dull than these sordid back-slapping sessions, where has-beens in tuxedos hand over to even older has-beens in tuxedos… ?” And as if it couldn’t get any worse, the players do the bone-breaking work so that some old, white, male billionaire in a tacky suit can be the first to take credit.
Narratives in popular culture are often so vapid that they miss what’s really going on. Most people glance at the multi-million-dollar salaries paid to top athletes and assume there’s no exploitation happening. To the casual observer, it’s equally easy to conclude that racism is absent in a league with so many rich and popular black players.
The salaries that many pro athletes receive are indeed outrageously high compared to most people’s wages — half of all working people in the U.S. and Canada make less than $35,000 annually — and especially compared to black people in America, 1 in 5 of whom live in poverty. But those headline numbers obscure the fact that due to competition and injuries, the average length of an NFL career is less than 3 years. Even those players who are paid handsomely only get that way because the owners make much, much more.
The NFL has a salary cap that is ostensibly designed to ensure parity between franchises and promote healthy competition for the good of the game. Its other purpose, though, is to place a limit on the amount of revenue that owners have to share with players. Politifact reports that “in 2017, the NFL ownership kept a little more than $8 billion in revenue for themselves, while the players took a little less than $8 billion.” Since there are 32 owners and approximately 2200 players, that’s about $250 million per owner, and an average of roughly $3.6 million per player. The NFL summary of the current collective bargaining agreement, which runs through 2021, states that “player share [of revenue] must average at least 47 percent for the 10-year term of the agreement.” However, Dan Kaplan, a sports journalist, casts doubt on that number, reasoning that the “revenue figures are incomplete, as the league does not share every penny with the players, shielding hundreds of millions of dollars in areas such as stadium finance.” In other words, even millionaire athletes get shafted compared to the fat cats at the top.
Pro sports is a cut-throat business, and the players are treated as commodities to be marketed. If we dispense with the romance of professional sports and view it as it really is — a product to be sold — we see that the players are pawns on a chess board to be manipulated and traded for our entertainment. They are used to make rich people even richer. The primary problem is thus a classic master-and-servant dynamic, of which the racial aspect is an especially unsavoury detail. Even if the central problem is one of economic disparity, full stop, the fact remains that more than 2 in 3 NFL players are black, and almost all the owners are white. The hierarchy in sports reflects the one in society, and they are both unjust.
Among 2018’s crop of Oscar nominees for Best Picture was Jordan Peele’s perfect movie Get Out, a story filled with deliberately cringe-worthy expressions of patronizing liberal piety (e.g. “I would’ve voted for Obama a third time if I could”). This year’s equivalent (in theme, not genre) is the film Green Book starring Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen. Ali portrays the expert pianist Don Shirley, a black man, as he embarks on a concert tour through America’s Deep South in 1962. At each stop he is welcomed warmly by his white hosts who greet him as a celebrity and applaud vigorously for his masterful performances. Only after the show do we see the latent racism rear its ugly head. When Shirley seeks to use the mansion’s restroom, he is pointed toward the outhouse. When he arrives at his final concert stop, hungry after many hours on the road, to eat dinner at the estate restaurant before his performance, he discovers that the dining area is reserved for whites only. The host politely informs him that these are merely “club rules” that cannot be altered, even for the guest of honour.
These films demonstrate that the most prevalent and pernicious form of racism isn’t the Ku Klux Klan type; it’s the glib, pseudo-liberal type — the same sort of which the NFL is guilty. The rich white people in the movies don’t hate black people. In fact, they gravitate toward certain aspects of black history, culture, and fashion. But they don’t admire it per se. They envy it. They want to appropriate it for their own gain. They’re racist not because they feel hatred toward black people, but because they have dismissive contempt for them. The films make us uncomfortable because they’re incisive commentaries on the prevailing Western zeitgeist.
One needs only to look at what happens when players rock the boat with their inconvenient protests over police brutality to notice the parallels in the NFL. In one breath Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones will sing his players’ praises, while in another he forbids them from making political statements during the anthem because it wouldn’t sit well with the team’s conservative fan base. The former owner of the Houston Texans, the late Bob McNair, let slip his own private feelings on the matter of protests. He once lamented how granting players latitude to express their political opinions was like having “inmates running the prison.”
Silence toward any situation is just as political as active protest; silence preserves the status quo.
The NFL’s ownership profits on embracing a delicate balance of neoconservative American patriotism and superficial liberal sensibilities. To indulge the former, the armed forces are a permanent fixture in the league, from Salute to Service month — complete with special-edition camouflage merchandise (so you can feel like you’re one of the boys!)— to military aircraft flying over stadiums, to endless TV ads exhorting viewers to enlist. To humour others, until recently the league featured breast cancer awareness month each October, encouraging players and coaches to wear pink paraphernalia (which, of course, was also available for purchase). That initiative has since been replaced by a token gesture to end all token gestures, whereby the league permits players to showcase a personal charitable cause on their cleats.
The touching displays help to take the mind off the skeletons in the NFL’s closet, like domestic abuse scandals and CTE. All these official causes are wonderful, the league’s mandarins imply, but God forbid that players get wise and use their platforms as celebrities to raise awareness about police brutality or the broken criminal justice system that disproportionately affect people of colour.
It was on precisely these grounds that Tomi Lahren, an inflammatory conservative TV pundit, expressed her indignation at the prospect of anyone refusing to stand for the Star Spangled Banner. The charitable thing to say is that she was staggeringly oblivious, rather than cynical, to the hole in her logic as she insisted that the anthem is “not the right place” for professional athletes to protest.
Of course, Lahren’s position (along with that of the president) demands a follow-up question: When is the best time for an athlete to protest effectively, if not during moments when millions of people are watching? One can only imagine that she would be even less impressed with protesters who loot and riot to get their point across. But if she and her ilk are against violent protests (as most of us are) and against peaceful protests, what sort of protest do they find acceptable? Even the most diehard Republican would have to admit that protesting in private defeats the purpose. Then again, that seems to be their point.
Those who go about their lives in privileged, apathetic comfort don’t want to admit that silence toward any situation is just as political as active protest; silence preserves the status quo. At the end of the day, the owners exploit the players as money-making instruments, and insubordination from the servants cannot be tolerated. Telling the truth about injustice is bad for business.
Just Like the Story of Little Red Hen
If you’re an NFL fan, you may know that players occasionally praise the owner of their team during interviews or press conferences. In a league that counts among its ranks many athletes who endured impoverished, single-parent, and sometimes abusive childhoods, owners in pro sports can serve as mentors to young players. It’s natural that some players would feel a special connection to the person who employs them.
For example, when asked about harassment allegations against former Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, quarterback Cam Newton pled agnosticism, but emphasized that (Mr. Richardson) “has given me an opportunity to make a big impact [for] my family.” Newton, in other words, credited Richardson for making him very wealthy, and wasn’t about to bite the hand that fed him. That belief explains why players rarely, if ever, publicly criticize the league’s established order, and why NFL fans take for granted that the owner should receive the trophy first. After all, he “made it all happen.”
Except, he didn’t. The fans did. The owner pays the players using the revenue that the players generate from the public’s attention. People buy merchandise with their favourite player’s name on it. They pay for tickets to watch games in the stadium. They pay for cable subscriptions to watch the games on TV. They endure television advertisements, the time-slots for which net ESPN, NBC, CBS, and Fox Sports millions of dollars each. The NFL takes a cut of that media revenue by selling its product to those channels. The league distributes that revenue amongst the team owners, who pay their staff salaries. Then, as the final step, the owners get the credit for putting the show together. Which is strange, because I’ve never seen Robert Kraft’s name on the back of a Patriots jersey.
When the winning team’s owner gets on the mic to accept the trophy on February 3, he’ll be sure to hit the proper notes and thank “these great young men who have worked so hard,” along with the supporters of his team who are, of course, “the best fans in the world.” Despite having a platform to reach over a hundred million people at once, he won’t mention the concussions his players have sustained, and he won’t speak of the injustices plaguing society. He won’t even let a randomly-selected fan of his team accept the trophy on behalf of all ticket-holders and the “12th man,” even though doing so would be a public-relations masterstroke. He’ll simply go through the motions, because that’s what keeps the passive masses satisfied. If an owner really wanted to make sure credit went to those who deserve it most, though, he would keep himself out of the limelight altogether. The fact that owners don’t eschew that attention tells us everything we need to know about how the NFL’s sausage gets made.
I write about politics, economics, and feminism. Check out my Table of Contents for a list of everything I’ve written on Medium.