When I was in the fifth grade, we wrote stories about what we wanted to be when we grew up. In my story, I was a fullback for the New York Football Giants. If you grew up in Maine when I did, you were likely to root for the Giants or the Green Bay Packers. That upstart American Football League did not even exist. I remember rooting for Y.A. Tittle, Sam Huff, Rosie Grier, Rosie Brown, and other Giants notables. These were teams that found ways to lose the big games to the Colts and Packers as deftly as the Red Sox lost to the Yankees. Even though it was not until the era of Phil Simms, Harry Carson, and Lawrence Taylor did I know what it was for my tribe to win a championship, I was hooked.
It is common to say that sports are a metaphor for life. This is true today about football and in ways that are less than desirable. Professional football has become too much like the worst parts of American culture: sexual exploitation, drugs, violence, flag waving, and money. I find it increasingly hard to enjoy being a fan.
The National Football League recently suffered from high-profile domestic violence cases involving star players. The league’s response was to try to burnish its image with slick public relations tools – public service announcements decrying domestic violence and breast cancer awareness game days where players and coaches wear pink gear. These superficial responses try to paper over the real culture of the NFL. This culture is most clearly evident in team “cheerleaders,” scantily clad women employed to keep men’s attention during lulls in the game. (My Giants are one of the few NFL teams to have never employed cheerleaders.) Given lack of meaningful opportunities for women to work in the NFL coupled with the presence of cheerleaders as sex objects, it is hard to argue with those who see football’s culture as inherently misogynist.
The U.S. continues to struggle with substance abuse, the most high-profile manifestation being the increasing opiate addiction rates. Yet we tolerate the drug culture of professional football where pain killing pills and injections are used routinely to keep players on the field. The league also reflects our larger societal ambiguity about drugs by sanctioning wide spread use of pharmaceutical pain killers and then punishing players for self-medicating off the field with marijuana. Celebrating a work environment where doing one’s job is reliant on drug use is no model for addressing the larger drug crisis in our culture.
Of course, drug use in football is a result of its inherent violence. Scholars like Bob Trichka long ago pointed out the ethical dilemma where behaviors that would be prosecuted in any other work environment are celebrated in football. For a fan, this is problematic. We are excited by the big hit and violence in sport is memorable. I clearly recall watching television the day Lawrence Taylor broke Joe Thiesman’s leg in a perfectly legal football play. Does the violence we see in sport mirror our tolerance of violence in our larger culture? Once again the NFL’s response is denial, seen in the league’s failure to address concussion issues in any meaningful way. To add insult to injury (literally), the league generally abandons ex-players to deal on their own with their work-related injuries.
Football and other sports have become increasingly imbued with flag waving and crass militarism. George Carlin’s famous routine about the differences between football and baseball was a humorous take on the militarism of football. Since September 11 there has been a dramatic increase in the NFL’s use of military symbols – over-sized American flags, paratroopers dropping into stadia to deliver game balls, and wounded warriors given side-line access during games. This increasingly feels exploitive. Football tries to convince us that being fans is another way of showing our patriotism; but the symbols are hollowed by their support of the money machine that is the NFL.
And money is the key. Professional football now mirrors the broader American economic model. A few extremely wealthy individuals monopolize a popular franchise and then exploit both workers and the public purse to add to their vast personal fortunes. Income inequality, declining bargaining power of workers, short-term employment contracts, and public extortion are at the core of the football business model. Owners use their monopoly power to threaten moving teams from one city to another to hold up local governments for huge subsidies that create little public benefit. In other realms economists call this rent seeking behavior. Smith College economist Andrew Zimbalist documented the way pro sports owners exploit this system to increase their wealth at the expense of players and the public coffers. No sports league does that more effectively than the NFL.
So football has lost more than a little of its luster for me. It is harder to watch the games with the unbridled joy of a fifth grader. You may still find me celebrating my Giants, win or lose, in my team jacket from the 1986 Super Bowl era. It is hard to lose that winning feeling. This is the contradiction of being a 21st Century sports fan. It mirrors the contradictions in 21st Century American society.