They call it “America’s game.” The National Football League is the most popular sport in the country by most metrics, and it isn’t even close — from polls in which fans state their favorite, to the amount of money the league takes in, to television viewing. In 2013, 34 of the 35 highest-rated television programs were NFL games.
But there is another sense in which the NFL, which begins its 98th season this week, is America’s game, and that’s the extent to which it seems to refract the nation, especially now, in the age of Trump. Indeed, it is America’s game the way Trump is America’s president.
The philosopher/historian Jacques Barzun famously remarked that anyone who wants to know the “heart and mind” of America must first know baseball. I think you can amend that now to say that to know the heart and mind of contemporary America you must first know football. So much that is wrong with the country is blended into football and its professional league, and I say this as an avid, if skeptical fan.
Appropriately during this Labor Day week, let’s begin with labor relations. As the late Michael Novak, before he became a right-wing enthusiast, put it in his book The Joy of Sports, baseball was a pastoral sport, basketball an urban sport with a hint of jazz, and football an industrial sport, in which the players are not only encased in uniforms and equipment that turn them into anonymous cogs, but also organized in formations that are the sports equivalent of a machine.
This is significant because the honchos who own the teams and the henchmen who run the league for them treat their employees just the way industry treats its employees — as if they are expendable. Football players have the shortest careers of any professional athletes – an average of 3.3 years.
Among professional athletes, only the NFL’s contracts are not guaranteed. When you hear that a player is getting, say, $50 million over five years, it’s just smoke. Any fan can tell you that players are likely to be released or injured long before they play out their contracts, which in any case are significantly smaller than in baseball, basketball or even hockey — on average, $2.1 million in the NFL as compared to $4.4 million in Major League Baseball, $6.2 in the National Basketball Association and $2.9 million in the National Hockey League.
But even that number is skewed dramatically because a handful of players, namely quarterbacks and longtime veterans, make much higher salaries than everyone else. (This makes the NFL a prime example of the so-called “superstar” economy, where money flows to a few at the expense of the many.) According to one study, 70 percent of the players in the league, primarily the younger players, make less than the average. And then they are out of the league.
Underpaying employees fits right in with modern American business practice. And one reason that employees are paid less than their economic value is the demise of unions under the pressure of businesses and their Republican allies. Economists have charted how the decline of union participation has depressed wages.
The NFL could be a case study. While other sports unions are powerful and get great benefits for their members — the NBA has a solid profit-sharing mechanism — the NFL union is all talk, no power. When it did strike in season, 30 years ago, in 1987, the owners employed “replacement players” (scabs), and the regular players rapidly caved.
They always cave, both because they feel they can’t afford to lose salary on such short careers and because they know the owners think all but the quarterbacks are expendable. Again, they’re in the same boat as so many American workers, though the high short-term salaries help conceal it.
Then, of course, there is this: Professional football literally brain damages its players. This is something that for years the NFL denied and attempted to hide. But studies of football players consistently show that many of them suffer from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated blows to the head that leaves many of them disabled. Recently, a neuropathologist studied the donated brains of 111 former NFL players and found 110 with signs of CTE: 99 percent.
Once the evidence was incontrovertible, former players sued the league for compensation and won a settlement. I should say “hard-won.” When I asked an attorney for the players about complaints that the settlement was insufficient, he told me, “Do you know how much the NFL offered us? Not one nickel.”
Meanwhile, the NFL has contributed $100 million to a fund to study CTE, which sounds good, but as reported by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru on the ESPN website last week, “after years of donating to outside entities — an approach that league officials said was designed to keep the research independent — the NFL has taken the science in-house and under its control.”
If ever there were a dramatic example of the terrible state of labor-capital relations, this is it: Damage your employees while they are in your service and earning you a fortune, underpay and then discard them. The harm inherent in the game so infuriated former NFL lineman Ed Cunningham that he quit his job as an ESPN analyst because he said he could no longer promote a sport that destroys its players.
As America itself increasingly is, the NFL is an oligarchy. All professional leagues are. But unlike the others, the job of the NFL’s commissioner, Roger Goodell, is to do the owners’ bidding, the players be damned. In practice, this means that, unlike the MLB or NBA, there is absolutely no partnership and no justice. Goodell renders decisions and metes out penalties.
When the owners clearly pressured him to take the too-successful New England Patriots down a few notches, Goodell happily complied with a kangaroo court that convicted quarterback Tom Brady of conspiring to deflate footballs and then suspended him for four games, two less than the punishment he gave running back Ray Rice for knocking his girlfriend unconscious.
Goodell convicted Brady, even though the vast preponderance of scientific evidence acquitted him. The NFL doesn’t need science any more than the climate deniers and President Trump do. In short, as in America, the only NFL justice is rough justice, which is highly influenced by the moneyed class, and highly prejudicial.
Finally, there’s the issue of race. I don’t want to relitigate the case of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, an African-American, who took holy hell last year for deciding to kneel during the national anthem as a way of bringing attention to police brutality against African-Americans. His decision is still resounding throughout the league, and on the eve of the season Kaepernick has yet to be signed by a team.
NFL defenders, nearly all of them white, declare that this is because Kaepernick is simply not good enough. Objective NFL fans know this is pure nonsense. Not better than Blake Bortles and Chad Henne in Jacksonville, where the team president, Tom Coughlin, declared that he would not sign Kaepernick and would not say why.
A panel of ESPN football experts rated Kaepernick better than eight current NFL starters, and the statistically obsessed website fivethirtyeight.com demonstrated that Kaepernick’s alleged incompetence is a hoax to disguise the fact that he is being blackballed.
No one is necessarily accusing the NFL of outright racism, even though it has a history of denying African-Americans the opportunity to play quarterback, presumably because the powers that be didn’t think them smart enough. But where there’s smoke, there’s fire.
The NFL is roughly 70 percent black, but unlike the NBA, its fan base is not. Its fan base is white and older: 83 percent white. They also are more likely to be middle class than poor or rich. Effectively, then, NFL fans resemble the voters who elected Trump, which may help explain the racial divide between the league and its fans — a divide for which Kaepernick is a casualty. Listen to sports radio railing against him, and you are listening to the voice of Trump’s America.
Meanwhile, basketball’s LeBron James is an outspoken advocate for racial justice, and believe me, the NBA isn’t punishing the star for it. Nor are the fans. But the NBA is not a microcosm of America. Unfortunately, the NFL is.
(And none of this is to reference that Robert Kraft, the owner of the Super Bowl-winning Patriots, and Patriots’ coach Bill Belichick are big Trump supporters, or that Kraft awarded Trump a Super Bowl ring.)
As a fan, I love the aesthetics of sports and the occasional flashes of sportsmanship and camaraderie one sees on the field. But if sports can reflect the best of us, we all know they can just as easily reflect the worst. More often than not, sportsmanship gives way to tribalism. (What is more tribal than sports, unless it is politics?) And winning more often than not trumps every other value, including sportsmanship.
The NFL particularly gives vent to some of the country’s worst impulses. If there is any hope on the horizon, it is that, like the country’s politics, the league is in a state of crisis, with falling TV ratings and a desertion by millennials, I imagine for many of the reasons discussed here.
That may bode ill for the NFL’s future and that of its conservative oligarchs. But to know the heart and mind of the nation now, in a time when we’re foundering under the guidance of a race-baiting, labor-hating narcissist, it’s important to know this league. It is still America’s game.