Next Sunday, February 4, is the NFL Super Bowl. This year’s edition features the Philadelphia Eagles (my favourite team! Flyyyy Eagles flyyyyyy!!!) versus the New England Patriots (yet again. Yeah, yeah, Tom Brady’s great, we get it. Who gives a fuck?). Needless to say, I’m looking forward to it.
Be that as it may, 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. 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.
As much as it pains me to say this, Patriots owner Robert Kraft could lift the Lombardi trophy for the sixth time on Sunday. Except for the publicly-owned Green Bay Packers' victory in 2011, from 2007 to 2017 the owners of the Colts, Giants, Steelers, Saints, Giants again, Ravens, Seahawks, Patriots, Broncos, and Patriots again all received the trophy first. It is a well-established custom in the NFL.
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 a month later, the Super Bowl is a ritual on America's calendar 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 (mostly black) players do the work so that some old, white, male billionaire in a tacky suit can be the first to take credit. Isn't it marvelous how far society has progressed?
I suspect that some people reading this will find it bizarre that I find the NFL to be kind of racist. They might be thinking “But players from ethnic minorities are celebrated in sports! Some of the biggest stars are black players paid millions of dollars! They’re idolized. Where is the racism in that?”
I would remind them that pro sports is a cut-throat business, and the players are commodities to be marketed. They are paid a lot of money, but only because the owners make much, much more. If we dispense with the romance of sport and view it as it really is – a product to be sold – then 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 most 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.
Jordan Peele’s perfect movie, Get Out, is nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards. It demonstrates precisely that the most prevalent and pernicious form of racism isn’t the KKK type, it’s the glib, pseudo-liberal, pop-culture type — the same sort of which the NFL is guilty. The rich white people in the movie 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 contempt for them. The film is subtly horrifying because it's an incisive commentary on the prevailing zeitgeist.
One needs only to look at what happens when players rock the boat with their inconvenient protests to see the parallel 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. Houston Texans owner Bob McNair lamented how giving players latitude was like having “inmates running the prison.”
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 – 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. It helps to take the mind off of the skeletons in the NFL's closet, like domestic abuse and CTE. All these official causes are wonderful, the league's mandarins seem to say, but God forbid that players get wise and use their platforms as celebrities to raise awareness about police brutality or the broken prison system. 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.
If you’re an NFL fan, you may know that it’s not unheard of for players to 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 sexual assault allegations against 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, credits Richardson for making him very wealthy. 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 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 Sunday, 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 PR masterstroke. He’ll simply go through the motions, because that’s what keeps the 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.