Vail Daily column: Big money can’t fix the NFL
British novelist Charles Dickens, a visitor to the U.S. in the 1830s, monitored the nation’s pulse. Later he complained in the 1842 edition of “American Notes” that Yankees commercialize life too much. Like Scrooge, they bowed before the “almighty dollar.” Dickens grew tired of overhearing American men boasting of their wealth, women demanding more of it, and children fighting over money.
From Dickens’ perspective, Americans in the early 19th century made Scrooge’s grasping spirit look and feel presentable. He wondered if these citizens had taken the 10th Biblical commandment against covetousness and twisted it into a virtue (Exodus 20:17). America’s god looked and acted a lot like today’s Donald Trump, who proudly parades his prosperity.
The National Football League sides with Trump. It doesn’t share Dickens’ caution about the corrosive effect excessive money exerts on society. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell sports a Midas touch. His 32 bosses are team owners who pay him upwards of $45 million annually. Top executives at the League’s 345 Park Avenue Manhattan offices display a framed copy of a 2011 Wall Street Journal. It declares with gusto, “The League That Runs Television.”
Who calls the shots?
Goodell quarterbacks a league that calls the TV shots, rather than the other way around. Other major sports are beholden to networks for coverage. But the NFL is in a league of its own because it makes so much money that it calls the shots on TV scheduling. New television contracts rose last year to a whopping $27.9 billion. This fat sum amounted to only part of the TV money that puts the NFL in the lap of luxury. Fans who tune in rarely get their fill of games.
Such huge sums of money shield fans from faults that give other businesses bad reputations. Money functions like a filter that hides unsavory facts about the NFL. The League’s propaganda covers most defects, trying to keep fans unaware.
Sean Gregory in a Time magazine op-ed uncovers the faults big money camouflages. “… The NFL has behavior problems. The NFL enjoys a federal tax-exemption it doesn’t deserve. The NFL milks the public out of money for stadiums. The NFL turned its back (initially) on concussions. It may have enabled painkiller abuse. The NFL supports a racist team nickname.
“But the NFL is no political entity, no leader. The NFL is a beloved product. The NFL has passes and catches and tackles and gambling and fantasy leagues. The NFL spurs parties and beer-drinking and man-caves” (“Despite Scandals, the NFL Always Wins,” Sept. 12, 2014).
So, why the huge TV ratings? Football is a violent contact sport that appeals to our baser instincts. Players excel at the game because they’re tough and rough. They register crushing tackles on opposing players. Quarterbacks get “sacked,” an ancient military term, which describes how victors smashed the villages of vanquished enemies.
Here’s the problem the NFL finds difficult to solve: Vicious play rewarded on the field must stop off the field so that players don’t act abusively to women or cops. Players sport a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hide personality — brutal when playing but mannerly after the game ends. Sometimes they confuse these roles and end up in court.
Moreover, the human body wasn’t made for the violent hits football players absorb. Money acts like a buffer that blinds fans to the long-term punishing effects on players. Few fans favor the remedy proposed by three-time Super Bowl winner and New England quarterback Tom Brady’s father. If he could replay his son’s pigskin snaps growing up, Dad Brady would be “very hesitant” to let Tom participate.
Enabling bad behavior
Commissioner Goodell makes it possible for the owners to realize a handsome return on their investment. The NFL revenue will probably top $10 billion this year. Under Goodell’s leadership, game attendance has shattered previous records. NFL games comprised 31 of the 33 top-rated TV shows last fall.
Does the NFL’s money-machine make acceptable brutal games that injures players and approve game conduct that translates into domestic violence off the field?
Goodell and team owners have convinced Americans that football is our nation’s premier sport during the entire year, even though teams only play five months out of the year — seven for the Super Bowl contenders.
The NFL takes over our calendars, but few fans consider it an intrusion. Players don’t enjoy much time off. Shoulder season after the Super Bowl is filled with mini-training camps. Stores stay open hawking jerseys and mugs. A hyped red-carpet featured on draft weekend in the spring vies with Oscar night. During this prime-time TV event, draftees garner as much press coverage as George Clooney. Cities compete to host the draft, offering the NFL lucrative inducements.
Fantasy football leagues are wildly popular, too. Fans get a game-fix on computers by charting even marginal players, betting on what happens during games and competing for a prized fantasy football trophy.
Such year-long hyper-activity makes the NFL huge piles of money that camouflage huge problems football has. Big money can’t fix long-lasting football injuries or eradicated domestic violence off the field.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.