The LARB Ball NFL Roundtable




Welcome to the inaugural LARB Ball sports and culture roundtable! Below, you’ll find a series of short essays by critics and scholars on the players, texts, and problems surrounding the 2018-19 NFL season that began just this past week:

Brian Jacobson on why American football’s 1999 season was a harbinger of things to come;

Sarah J. Jackson on Colin Kaepernick and the obfuscation of dissent;

Kathleen Bachynski on brain trauma, masculinity, and toughness;  

Travis Vogan on advertising, activism, and Anheuser-Busch.

Any Given Sunday

by Brian Jacobson

Just before halftime, on September 27, 1999, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Steve Young, starting in the third game of his fifteenth season, dropped back to pass, took a hard hit from two blitzing defensive backs, banged his head on a lineman’s knee, and hit the grass. After lying motionless on the Sun Devil Stadium field for 30 seconds, Young got up and walked to the sideline. After the game, he compared the hit to the “flash” seen by KO’d boxers but insisted that he could have gone back in for the second half. Wide receiver Jerry Rice called Young “a warrior” and predicted that he’d be back next Sunday. But Young didn’t go back in that evening or on any Sunday after. It was the hit that ended his concussion-filled career.

A few months earlier, a group had gathered outside Madison Square Garden to protest the NFL draft. Their charge: racism in a league that had never selected a black quarterback with the first pick. The 1999 college class was loaded with highly ranked QBs, and, true to form, with the first pick the Cleveland Browns took white Kentucky graduate Tim Couch, leaving black QB Donovan McNabb to go second to the Philadelphia Eagles. The protestors had larger a point: behind the selection pattern was both a long history of keeping black players out of certain positions and a racialized discourse common in both scouting circles and among journalists. As one 2010 study puts it, “Black quarterback prospects are overwhelmingly portrayed as being very athletic but lacking mental abilities,” while white quarterbacks are described as having “the mental capabilities to play the position, but lack athleticism.” And so the coverage had gone in 1999. Third pick Akili Smith, for instance, was derided for his low SAT scores and poor performance on the dubious and biased Wonderlic test. Four years later, with Couch struggling to stay in the league and McNabb a regular Pro Bowler and MVP candidate, Rush Limbaugh insisted that McNabb’s apparent success was just media fabrication—an invention of those who were “very desirous that a black quarterback do well.” Fake sports news circa 2003.

Limbaugh’s ESPN career quickly dissipated, and McNabb “thought we were through with all that.” On the concussion front, as Kathleen Bachynski details in her part of this roundtable, the league already had plenty of data about the risk. But still, almost two decades later, NFL careers continue to start and end in similar circumstances. What will it take for the culture and politics of sports to change?

The NFL is a good test case, and that 1999 season looks, in retrospect, like a harbinger of the league and its unchanging politics today. On the field, the game was changing. The St. Louis Rams, led by a new kind of high-powered, pass-first offense—the “Greatest Show on Turf”—won the Super Bowl. At the other end, the New England Patriots—soon to be perennial winners for much of the 2000s—would follow up a last place finish by adding Bill Belichik and Tom Brady. The introduction of instant replay—with coaches flinging little red flags and referees with pagers hustling to sideline monitors—gave the game new technological sheen (and more inane commentary). A new rule designed to prevent lower-body injuries made clipping illegal around the line of scrimmage. But the league brushed aside concerns about head trauma, this despite Young’s dramatic primetime exit, and even as former Steelers center “Iron Mike” Webster—so-named thanks to his reputation for playing through injuries—filed a dementia claim with the league Retirement Board.

That winter, Hollywood made clear that the league’s problems were no secret. Oliver Stone’s spectacular mess of a film, Any Given Sunday, hit all the right themes with all the wrong dialogue. Dennis Quaid plays a veteran QB, “Cap” Rooney, with a history of head trauma. When he goes down with yet another injury, Jamie Foxx’s “Steamin’” Willie Beamen steps into the spotlight. Quaid’s Rooney comes off as a Steve Young or, in today’s league, Tom Brady type, while Foxx’s Beamen is more like McNabb or fellow ’99 draftee Daunte Culpepper—a new millennial quarterback with fast feet, long passing, and quick thinking in equal measure. With Beamen at the helm, the Miami Sharks become something like that year’s high-flying Rams.

Between the games, the film manages to take up many of the problems the league faces today. A corrupt team physician (James Woods) hands out painkiller cocktails in the locker room, all while faking test results to keep certain players on (or off) the field. Rooney fights to make it back for the playoffs but gets cold feet when he considers his shaky hands, spotty memory, and just what might happen with the next big hit. And the players pass their non-football time at raucous cocaine- and alcohol-fueled parties, fighting each other and treating women variously as sex objects or garbage—though never quite to the degree of Ray Rice.

The film tends to blame the players—they’re just in it for the money. L.L. Cool J’s running back plays for endorsements as much as victories, while real NFL linebacker Lawrence Taylor’s “Shark” Lavay risks paralysis, and possibly even sudden death, to make his bonus. But Stone doesn’t spare the owners either. Their sport is business, and its tactics ruthless. Cameron Diaz’s character, having inherited the Sharks from her father, struggles against the old guard—led by Charlton Heston’s perfectly white and conservative league commissioner—to cash in with either a new tax payer-funded stadium or by moving the team to the richer market in LA.

In one of the film’s most iconic scenes, Foxx’s Beamen takes the league to task for its racism. The hypocrisy of college football corruption, Beamen tells coach D’Amato (Al Pacino), extends to the pros, where the only difference is that “the field hands get paid.” D’Amato dismisses this “race card,” but the film makes clear that while players may not be slaves, they play and get paid only if they toe the owners’ white line—as Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid know well.

The Beamen-D’Amato exchange may be more famous, at least in film terms, for its use of the iconic chariot race in Ben-Hur. Like Jerry Rice’s description of concussed “warrior” Steve Young, the film repeatedly compares football players with modern gladiators. The extension of this analogy—one that sits well in Stone’s grand view of politics—has become something of a cliché: football is to the late-millennial United States as the gladiator games were to Rome in its final days. And yet, every day that Trump plays politics with the NFL while the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan drag on, Russia and China drive international relations, and his own efforts to bait North Korea (as promised in his 1999 presidential run) advance the Doomsday Clock, the association make more sense.

My point is this: American football may not be a symptom of declining American hegemony, but the issues it raises do signal the fissures and failures in American politics and society that keep real national greatness out of reach. How could a country hope to be a global model when it has racist leaders, more time for spectacle than social action, and a disregard for any science with inconvenient consequences (whether about climate change or protecting athletes from life-altering harm)?

As the 1999 season suggests, none of this is new. Will this season witness any real changes? Recent history doesn’t offer much cause for optimism. Cultural critics two decades from now may well be writing about the 2015 Will Smith star vehicle, Concussion, or about a “stick to sports” rhetoric that just won’t go away, with the same disbelief at the league’s failure to act and fans’ reluctance to react.

Action, in sports as in life, is what’s at stake. In Any Given Sunday’s other iconic scene, just before the final game, Pacino’s D’Amato tries to stitch his fraying team together for the prototypical final act. Football is a game of inches, he tells them, and only those willing to fight and die for that inch will win. It’s the stuff of sport cinema; the motivational speech that unites the divided, turning individuals driven by self-interest into a group with a shared goal. If only the NFL and more of its fans could take this kind of “locker room talk” not just as tawdry sports rhetoric but as a model for social action.

Every social movement, like every sports team, is made up of individuals fighting for inches. Most, faceless and nameless, are lost to history; others become icons. Colin Kaepernick, another 49ers QB who has likely played his last game, and who came into the league with a “big arm” and “lots to learn,” has become the latter. One of the problems with the Nike ad campaign that has sparked so much controversy in the last week is what Jelani Cobb has described as its transformation of “Kaepernick the subversive” into a more palatable figure—a Steinbeck character, or David to the NFL and racist America’s Goliath. America likes heroes, its sports leagues like stars, and advertisers like spokespeople. Social change, too, has always generated such figures, but it also needs the nameless—those who anonymously fight for that inch together. Sports film speeches call attention to that need for collective action but direct it only to the game.

What the NFL resists and Nike’s ads don’t do enough to address is how to make the fight not about individuals but about collectives, and not about what happens on the field but what happens in the streets, the courts, and the halls of government. This struggle for social equality, the NFL and its fans must realize, can only be waged everywhere—including, yes, during the playing of the “Star-Spangled Banner,” a spectacle of American politics staged at every game. It’s a struggle that may well be the lasting memory of this NFL season—no doubt it will be more important than whatever else happens on any given Sunday.

Brian Jacobson is assistant professor of cinema studies and history at the University of Toronto. He curates LARB Ball.

The Obfuscation of Colin Kaepernick

by Sarah J. Jackson

Colin Kaepernick, as the face of Nike’s 30th ‘Just Do It’ campaign, appears in a black and white ad emblazoned with the words “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”  He narrates and appears in an accompanying commercial that features a diverse group of inspiring athletes; athletes with disabilities, athletes who have survived refugee camps and brain tumors, women and Muslim athletes who have broken social barriers, and stars like LeBron James and Serena Williams.

Through advertising, broadcasting, branding, and more, black athletes are in the unique position of having access to white spaces and white audiences most African Americans never will. As a result they have come to represent something both hopeful and dangerous in the white imagination; they are frequently idolized as examples of a world that requires no protest and no change because, as dictated by the ideology of sport, an equal playing field exists if you just don’t give up. At the same time Black athletes are grounded in the communities from whence they come, wherein the black experience is not just individual but social and political, rooted in intergenerational trauma, resilience, joy, and pain. In these communities the systemic nature of American racism, the myth of equality, is such common sense and common experience that it is joked about as often as it is mourned.

In accordance with these differing impulses, the Kaepernick+Nike campaign, which has been interpreted as the sports apparel company’s endorsement of the former NFL player’s protests against racist police violence, was met with outrage by those who interpret kneeling during the national anthem as an attack on patriotism and other American values. Some critics have even taken to social media to burn the Nike gear they own. This vitriol toward the athletes’ peaceful protests echoes the president’s: Trump called protesting athletes, “sons of bitches,” and has ongoingly targeted Kaepernick and those who have followed his example with tweets proposing consequences from massive fines to banishment from the sport and country.

While rollout of the ad surprised many, none of this surrounding debate is new. Black athletes have always faced extreme censure for questioning America’s racial status quo. Audiences of all colors and political leanings have always looked to them to confirm various versions of the American experiment. And these athletes have always been celebrated by the powerful, but only to the extent that their stories can be integrated into narratives about American progress and exceptionalism.

Nike’s commercial seems to do just this. It locates Kaepernick in a narrative of the mythic American Dream – where individual tenacity is the most important consideration. It flattens the story of the racial justice activism that likely cost him his career, framing it as just one of many ways an athlete might demonstrate bravery and grit. The concluding words of the ad are, after all, not “Black Lives Matter,” but rather, “So don’t ask if your dreams are crazy, ask if they’re crazy enough.”

The innocuous ad campaign may not have been noteworthy at all if Kaepernick’s and other NFL players’ protests against police violence had not been hugely controversial. And they would not have been controversial if they hadn’t been intentionally misinterpreted and obfuscated by some in power and passively misinterpreted and obfuscated others. Such misinterpretation, obfuscation, and the resulting vilification of black athletes who dare to advocate for racial justice before popular opinion aligns is an American tradition.

In my 2014 book, Black Celebrity, Racial Politics, and the Press, I examined cases of dissent from WWII through the 21st century, concluding with protests by NBA players in the wake of the Florida killing of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman’s acquittal for murdering a boy because he – and a jury of his peers – believed Martin was suspicious. Playing just miles from where 17-year-old Martin was killed, Miami Heat players scribbled #JusticeforTrayvon on their shoes and posted a team photo wearing hoodies (the apparel that Martin wore and that popular narratives deemed threatening) with their heads bowed and hands in their pockets. In a hopeful, but uncommon institutional move, the Heat organization stood behind their players, saying in a statement, “We support our players and join them in hoping that their images and our logo can be part of the national dialogue and can help in our nation’s healing.”

Far more common denunciations of the dissent of Black athletes have sounded the same in every era: The narratives of ungratefulness, the offense at the idea of a person of wealth objecting to the structures of the society they have succeeded in, and most of all the insinuations of a lack of patriotism. These responses are so formulaic that they are boringly predictable to those who know history.

Muhammad Ali was stripped of his title and banned from boxing (not to mention the 5 year prison sentence – which had to be overturned by the Supreme Court) in 1967 following his war-time conscientious objection on the bases of racial solidarity with the Vietnamese. Paul Robeson, the entertainer and two-time, All-American football player, was not just labeled a subversive by the U.S. government and investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee for his critiques of American racism, imperialism, and support of cross-racial class organizing, but deprived of his passport, his profession, and almost lynched by an angry mob in 1949. Like Ali after him, Robeson, who had been a wildly popular entertainer before the government and white audiences discovered the details of his political evolution, moved quickly from being “one of the good ones” to public enemy number one. Unlike Ali, Robeson’s reclamation and reappropriation has taken much longer.

Insisting that black people deserve the same rights — and the same chance of surviving — as anyone else, remained controversial 50, and now 100, years after Paul Robeson was named an All-American collegiate football player.

Images of Kaepernick and his comrades kneeling in protest also recall the iconic image of gold-medalist Tommie Smith and bronze-medalist John Carlos with their fists upraised at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. As amateur athletes, Smith and Carlos had neither the cultural or financial capital to protect themselves from the onslaught of censure that would come from the sports establishment (they were ejected from the Olympic games and suspended from the US track and field team), the press (they were labeled “militants,” “freaks,” “racists,” and “clowns”), and in their everyday lives (both received death threats and were subsequently denied jobs).

The most striking similarity between the knees of today’s NFL players and fists of Smith and Carlos is not just how fundamentally non-threatening these physical positions are, but in the rampant mistelling of their meaning.

According to Smith in a quite clear but hardly re-reported interview with Howard Cosell at the time, the raised fists represented, “the power and unity of black America,” their black socks with no shoes, “black poverty in racist America.” “The totality of our effort,” Smith explained, “was the regaining of black dignity.” That did not stop members of the sports establishment, politicians, public figures, and reporters from implying that the two men hated their country, were ungrateful and undeserving of the opportunity to compete, and probably, despite the medals they had just won, were not great runners anyway. The editors of the Los Angeles Times called their motivations, “a tremendous barrage of anti-white, anti-United States nonsense,” saying Smith and Carlos “used the victor’s stand as a propaganda platform to denigrate their homeland.” And sportswriter Jim Murray, apparently wholly unaware that white silver-medalist Peter Norman stood in solidarity with the two black medal winners, opined that John Carlos’ “outlook on white people was doubtless colored by the fact he got beat by one of them.”

As a result, few Americans learned at all of the existence of the multi-racial and multi-gender coalition of athletes and coaches that made up the Olympic Project for Human Rights, least of all of their demands that included, among other things, that the International Olympic Committee divest from apartheid South Africa and that the United States Olympic Committee desegregate their administration and coaching staff. Similarly, few burning Nike gear over the recent commercial could likely articulate the fairly straightforward concerns of Black Lives Matter.

Lest anyone suggest that negative reactions to the misnamed “anthem protests” are largely a thing of a pre-enlightened America, there is the case of Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. The Denver Nuggets player, and devout Muslim, who protested American imperialism in the Middle East and anti-Black racism at home in 1996 first by staying in the locker room and then by praying silently during the Star Spangled Banner. The retribution was swift. Talk radio DJs barged into a Denver mosque during prayer and played the Star Spangled Banner on a loudspeaker as a “prank.” The death threats started immediately, as did the sudden discussion among sports journalists that maybe, suddenly, Abdul-Rauf was not that great of a player and maybe, even, he shouldn’t be playing at all (despite being dubbed earlier in the year as “having the best season of his career”). He was traded the next season and eventually left the country before settling in his home state of Mississippi where, years later, his home was vandalized with white supremacist symbols and burned to the ground.

And so here we are, well into the 21st century, awestruck by a moving advertising campaign, but watching America have the same debate it has before about the right of Black athletes to speak their truth. The debate we are not having remains; do black lives matter to the state?

Yes, there is symbolic power in corporate sponsorships. But our national discourse is still poisoned by the inability of our leaders to speak truthfully about race and protest — and the inability of much of white America to listen.  This obfuscation of athletes’ dissent against racism is as much an American tradition as football.

Sarah J. Jackson is a scholar of media, race, and activism based in Boston, MA.

How We Justify the Risks

by Kathleen Bachynski

In 1994, brain injuries were threatening a public relations crisis for the NFL. Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman, New York Jets receiver Rob Moore, and New York Giants quarterback Dave Brown had all left games with frightening injuries. Chicago Bears running back Merril Hoge announced his retirement at age 29 due to multiple concussions. Doctors warned that brain trauma needed to be taken more seriously because “the core of the person can change from repeated blows to the head.”

The media attention helped prompt the NFL to form a committee on mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI) that year. But instead of addressing the issue, the committee would become notorious for its efforts to deny and downplay the risks of concussions. Meanwhile, Monday Night Football continued to introduce NFL games with graphics of helmets crashing into each other, celebrating the sport’s “head knocking and head cracking.”

Over two decades later, such blatant celebrations of hits to the head have become increasingly frowned upon. But neither the NFL nor football fans have resolved the contradictions between loving a full body collision sport and the profound toll those blows take on athletes. Research, books, films, and news articles examining head injuries in America’s most popular sport continue to stack up, with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) receiving the bulk of recent attention. This degenerative brain disease has now been identified on the autopsy of numerous high profile NFL players, from Frank Gifford to Mike Webster to Junior Seau.

CTE is just one of the most devastating outcomes of repeated hits to the head. One study found that more than 40 percent of retired, living NFL players had signs of brain injury. The symptoms often included serious problems with executive functions, such as problem solving, attention, learning and memory. The NFL itself has acknowledged in federal court that nearly a third of retired NFL players would go onto to develop cognitive problems, at higher rates and younger ages than the general population. Startling numbers of NFL player claims for Parkinson’s and ALS diagnoses indicate that repetitive brain trauma may also increase the risks of movement disorders.

And yet we are still asking: is there a way for grown men to repeatedly collide with one another practice after practice, game after game, and season after season, without risking the long term health of their brains?

This is not a question the NFL wants Americans to confront. The answer—no—points to an uncomfortable reality: tackling inherently involves full-body collisions that jostle brain cells over and over again.

A single brain injury can cause lingering symptoms, but with appropriate rest and treatment, the brain often heals after a single blow. It’s not the one-time big hits that are the foremost concern for long term health. The problem is that multiple hits can interrupt the brain’s repair processes. Over time, the brain’s “clean-up crew” may not be able to keep pace with the recurring hits that are inherent to any sport that involves constant collisions, such as boxing, tackle football, or professional ice hockey.

That repeated trauma adds up, increasing the risks of serious mental health problems and neurodegenerative diseases. “Head impacts can trigger CTE with no concussion at all,” as Boston University researcher Lee Goldstein explained. 

But fully acknowledging the risks of tackling threatens an existential crisis for football. Instead, the NFL prefers to suggest that the risks can be meaningfully reduced by making rule changes and altering helmet designs. The league has invested millions of dollars in developing new helmets, some of which parents can now purchase for $950 apiece. This year, the NFL unveiled a new helmet rule, making it a 15 yard penalty for players to lower their heads to initiate contact with their helmets.

Unsurprisingly, the helmet rule has caused much consternation. Players have called it impossible to follow, and some have blamed the rule for contributing to worse knee and other lower body injuries.

But perhaps most tellingly, sports commentators have characterized the helmet rule and other efforts intended to protect players as fundamentally opposed to the tough, manly essence of football. “Even before they tried this nonsense, the game had gone far too soft,” columnist Nick Canepa wrote in the San Diego Union Tribune. Moreover, Canepa continued, “Defenders have been trained to hunt since childhood….The players are not you and me. They are from another human category.”

Canepa’s characterization of football players as trained hunters from another human category simultaneously ascribes both animalistic and superhuman qualities to NFL players. This is an old way to justify athletes’ exposure to repeated trauma. Back in 1994, Dr. Elliot Pellman told Sports Illustrated that veteran football players “can unscramble their brains a little faster, maybe because they’re not afraid after being dinged.” Pellman was then the Jets’ team doctor and the chairman of the NFL’s mTBI committee, although he was a rheumatologist lacking expertise in brain trauma.

But NFL players are not superhuman. There is no evidence that professional football experience enables people to acquire the non-existent skill of “unscrambling” their own brains.

Meanwhile, describing NFL athletes as trained hunters, as “animals” able to grind down their opponents, also strips players of their all too human vulnerability to repeated brain trauma. In a league where 70 percent of athletes are black, these tropes play not only on masculine ideals of toughness, but also on longstanding racist stereotypes that black athletes are able to endure greater levels of pain and suffering.

Where does this all leave us? In 2018, the NFL is still in denial that repeated, full-body collisions pose fundamental risks to the human brain that cannot be solved with fancier equipment or new helmet rules. Commentators who love the sport help justify the risks by suggesting that players are superhuman beasts who can take the punishment. Fans may read the latest troubling headlines, even hold their breath when a player goes down, but many aren’t quite ready to look away. So another question remains: how many bodies and whose brains are we willing to see sacrificed for the sake of our entertainment?

Kathleen Bachynski is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Medicine at NYU Langone Health, where she researches and teaches on sports safety, ethics, and the history of medicine.

United We Buy/Drink/Watch/Stand

by Travis Vogan

Perennial National Football League sponsor Anheuser-Busch elected to shop its wares during the 2018 Super Bowl broadcast with an appeal to its civic responsibility.  Titled “United We Stand,” the ad opens with a middle-aged white man jolted from a comfortable slumber by an urgent call.  “I’ll be right there,” he dutifully responds before splashing some water on his weary face, kissing his still sleeping wife goodbye, and heading out to address the problem.  At this point, the nameless hero’s purpose is unclear.  But as he drives through the pre-dawn morning a radio report describes a natural disaster that has left thousands in need.  We finally learn his purpose when he pulls up to Anheuser-Busch’s Cartersville, Georgia brewery.  The part, in fact, is played by Kevin Fahrenkrog—the brewery’s actual manager.  Cartersville had been unceasingly cranking out red cans of Bud through the night, meeting the world’s apparently insatiable demand for the famous brew.  But Fahrenkrog brings production to a sudden halt.  He directs his charges to replace the red beer cans on the assembly line with white Anheuser-Busch water cans as Skylar Grey’s sultry rendition of Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” accompanies the factory workers’ redirected efforts.  Pallets of the canned water are loaded onto Budweiser trucks that rush off to provide aid.  The ad cuts back to Fahrenkrog’s home, where he and his wife watch a TV news report on the gallant relief efforts over dinner.  She shoots him a proud smile and he modestly nods, fulfilled after spending his long day helping the needy.  The commercial closes by highlighting Anheuser-Busch’s efforts in response to recent natural disasters in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and California.  Text appears below a Bud can that assures consumers: “Whenever you need us.  We’ll stand by you.” The 60-second spot, produced by the DAVID ad agency, cost about $10 million to air.

“United We Stand” offers a predictable message from a company that has spent decades attempting to equate its brand with American identity.  This is the same organization that replaced the “Budweiser” on its cans with “America” in 2016.  But the self-congratulatory ad cannot be divorced from the recent controversies surrounding pro football—specifically the tension about players kneeling and otherwise demonstrating during the pre-game National Anthem performance.  Without directly engaging the controversy, the commercial suggests that standing is the responsible and right course of action during difficult times.  It could have, of course, used any number of different terms to convey the ad’s sentiment—and Anheuser-Busch and DAVID are surely savvy enough to know the word’s connotations when attached to pro football in 2018.  Anheuser-Busch’s corporate headquarters, in fact, is about a twenty-minute drive from Ferguson, Missouri—a landmark of police brutality that informed many of the players’ decisions to demonstrate.  Reflecting the NFL owners’ dissatisfaction with the kneeling, Grey’s suburbanized rendition of “Stand By Me” and Fahrenkrog’s casting combine to show white people setting the example for how to respond properly during crises that disproportionately impact people of color.   More broadly, the commercial exhibits how advertising and television participate in the conflicts surrounding the contemporary NFL and embolden the league’s reactionary politics.

The NFL’s TV ratings dropped by eight percent in 2016, and by another ten percent in 2017.  Alarmists have read the decline as a bellwether of football’s demise and attributed this dip to the demonstrations, CTE, and domestic violence.  Last September, our thin-skinned Commander-in-Chief blamed the ratings decrease on the protesters and suggested the NFL deserved the punishment for not immediately quashing them.  Similarly, Papa John’s namesake and former CEO John Schnatter blamed his company’s dwindling sales on the protests within the league it sponsored.  Others contended that the lowered ratings were a result of calls to boycott the league because of its unwillingness to support the demonstrating players.  

The declines actually reflect overall trends in TV viewership.  That said, younger African American and Latinx viewers have reportedly stopped watching in slightly larger numbers than other groups.  There is no definitive evidence connecting this trend to dismay with the league’s politics, but it stands to reason that these groups might be more irked than others.  The NFL has given no indication that it cares.  In May, the league owners voted to adopt a National Anthem policy (which has been placed on hold after an NFL Players Association disputation) that basically satisfies the demands made by Trump and Schnatter, whose track records with minority communities, to put it very generously, are suspect.

The NFL, which has never been wealthier, seems to have little economic incentive to change its ways.  Though TV ratings are down—and will likely continue to drop apace with the rest of the changing medium—pro football still commands a greater percentage of those viewers who are watching than anything else.  NFL games composed 37 of the top 50 television broadcasts in 2017.  This marked a 32 percent increase from 2016 according to Advertising Age.  “The NFL is minting money,” reported Forbes, “thanks to hefty TV contracts and a favorable labor deal with the players.” The league gathered an estimated $3.2 billion last year, $500 million more than Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, and the National Hockey League combined.  TV broadcasts of NFL games are still the best way for advertisers to reach a mass audience.  These figures give the confederation of almost entirely white and conservative businessmen who run the league little incentive to do anything other than maintain their history of wrapping themselves in the flag and muzzling any internal discord.

If television and advertising make up the main forces that sustain these institutional practices, they compose potent ways to confront them.  Advertisers flock to NFL broadcasts because they attract viewers—not because they show football games or players standing or kneeling.  And networks pay the league billions of dollars to air its games on the promise of these ad dollars (as well as the prestige attached to the NFL).  Typically loathe to alienate potential customers, the NFL’s main sponsors have been reluctant to take a position on the frictions surrounding their high-profile partner.  When Business Insider asked a group of them to remark on the anthem debate they offered predictably bland comments.  “We have many long-term sports partnerships, including our NFL sponsorship, and while we may not agree on everything, we still believe in the power of sport to bring people together and overcome their differences,” responded Anheuser-Bush. “We have no plans to end our NFL sponsorship.”  While Anheuser-Busch and the league’s other partners “may not agree on everything” with the NFL, their sustained involvement aligns them with the organization’s stances.  And, of course, advertisements like “United We Stand” shed light on Anheuser-Busch’s attitudes when the rubber hits the road.  But advertisers, if anything, are capricious.  If spokespeople embarrass, they fire them.  If scandals emerge, they separate themselves.  Those frustrated with the NFL might do well do get in touch with or distance themselves from the sponsors that support the broadcasts that sustain the league that suppresses its employees.  In any case, it is important to keep in mind how these advertisers and broadcasters enable and support the NFL’s activities and politics.  The NFL may not listen to its players, but it will surely listen to its patrons. 

Travis Vogan is the author of ABC Sports: The Rise and Fall of Network Sports Television.


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