It occurs to me that the NFL is a mirror reflection of what America is, what it stands for, and what it refuses to acknowledge. In other words, I’m not paying either a compliment. I came to this conclusion recently when I found myself thinking about how the NFL seems a microcosm of so many issues that have taken on a national (and even international) scale over the course of the last decade or so. If you want to talk about violence, rape, race, or any other issue, your best bet is that it’s something the NFL has dealt with, or failed to do so, since about the last time you set your fantasy roster for this Sunday.
Football is so American, in fact, that saying so is misconstrued as a positive statement by those who should know better. When George Carlin passed away, I remember ESPN airing a clip of his first appearance on “Saturday Night Live,” in which he compared football (a martial, brute-force sport) with baseball (more pastoral and gentle). Carlin’s tone was obvious (he was making the case for baseball as our national pastime, a few years removed from the “defeat” of football-style machismo in this little country called Vietnam), yet the anchors that day seemed convinced that Carlin was praising the NFL. And to be honest, that very well may have been what he was doing.
NFL addiction is an acceptable version of our national obsessions with race, violence, sex, and class. We see gigantic black men barreling their bodies into one another, while sexy women on the sidelines cheer, and we know the names of the owners of teams sometimes better than the names of who’s in the starting line-up. In a league that is disproportionally black, there are almost no African-Americans in leadership roles, the Rooney Rule be damned. Football players have made news for drug infractions (about which commissioner Roger Goodell has overreacted like Claude Rains in “Casablanca,” shocked to find that there’s gambling going on in Rick’s Bar) and for firearms-related incidents (gee, has gun control been an issue in the news lately?). In a country where the most popular sport is a game of inches, resembling nothing so much as exaggerated trench warfare, it’s no wonder that the Bush Administration was able to appeal to our sense of “fair play” by pointing out how Iraq was just, well, evil, and standing in the way of our collective touchdown over terror. Aaron Hernandez straight-up murdered one guy, and may be guilty of other deaths.
But the punch heard around the internet (well, seen anyway) concerning Ray Rice really alerted me and a lot of other fans to the problems inherent in football. A sport so violent that its players can’t turn it off once they leave the field, endangering those around them? Surely this should be banned!
And yet…football is the biggest sport in America, as breathless sportscasters would have us know every Sunday afternoon, or Monday and Thursday night. And it’s not going anywhere, they seem to imply if not outright say.
I am part of the problem; I cheer for my New York Giants (and my Clemson Tigers, on the college-football level) every weekend while also acknowledging how much the NFL just plain doesn’t care for former players who experience long-term concussion damage. I went most of last season without watching any football, cold turkey. But as of this writing, mid-October, I can honestly say I haven’t kept to it; I’ve watched all or part of several contests on both the college and pro level. Much like Steve Almond in his book “Against Football,” I want so much to claim the moral high ground and declare that I am above this ridiculous thing called “football” and its violent, sexist, and racist ways. But I’m an American; of course I watch.
The NFL Draft is aired on TV every year; let’s just admit that it’s uncomfortably close to a televised slave auction (even when the player isn’t from an ethnic or racial minority, we’re judging them on physical traits that slave-owners would’ve considered in the antebellum days). Goodell initially suspended Ray Rice two games, while his suspension of Tom Brady for deflated balls was four (granted, Brady was a victim of Goodell’s sudden realization that not everyone was on board with a two-game suspension for domestic violence. He had to pay for the sins of Ray Rice, and the fact that the suspension was overturned in federal court made me a temporary Pats fan). A league that can’t get it right on something as obvious as a videotaped punch doesn’t deserve our validation, yet we’ve undervalued women and minorities for well over two centuries in this country. And our aspiration to be as wealthy as an NFL team owner doesn’t take into consideration the way that, every time he wants a new stadium, an owner can hold a city hostage. Making demands that could easily be covered by his own bank account (but then who would pay for their own stadium when they can get the taxpayers to foot the bill?), the owner is little more than Richie Rich on steroids. No wonder Americans are seriously considering voting for Donald Trump (a man who, by the way, bankrupted the only viable competition to the NFL in terms of providing football on a professional level).
Football can be so reactionary that there’s actually a team in the league that still goes by an outdated, clearly racist term for an ethnic minority in this country. I speak, of course, of the San Diego Chargers (kidding, the team in our nation’s capital whose hateful and disgusting name I won’t write is the one I’m talking about). Where else would this sort of thing be acceptable?
Football is America, and that’s not a good thing. But I do take comfort in the history of professional boxing, a sport arguably more brutal than the NFL by virtue of the fact that no one ever got Muhammed Ali in shoulder pads or a helmet. Concussion protocol in the NFL may be suspect, but it’s been positively criminal in the past in boxing. And boxing had a huge heyday as the sport of choice for brutal, angry, loud Americans everywhere. But there hasn’t been a boxer worth talking about since Mike Tyson (himself no upstanding citizen) was arrested on rape charges. Floyd Mayweather’s “undefeated” because he dodges well. Boxing was huge in America, once. If the NFL isn’t careful, they’re heading towards the same irrelevance, maybe even within our lifetimes. And if so, it couldn’t happen to a more deserving league. But we’re still stuck with the bigger picture, America itself. You suppose we could work on that as well?
Trevor Seigler is a graduate student and TA at Clemson University, currently working on a Master’s Degree in English and looking to pursue an MFA degree in creative writing after graduation. He is a native of Walhalla, South Carolina. Among his favorite authors are Charles Portis, Jonathan Lethem, George Saunders, Barry Hannah, and Thomas Pynchon.