Forward Pass by Thomas Hart Benton (1971)

While American football may not be everyone’s cup of amusement, understanding the mysterious ways of the National Football League may help to understand America.

The plague of a global pandemic and the ongoing atrocity of extrajudicial killings leading to widespread Black Lives Matter demonstrations exposes an unflattering view of American culture right in its own mirror. With travel halted and populations quarantined over the past year (so far), the whole show finally seems played out. We are the Land of the Free and we don’t even have a firm grip on what freedom means, let alone what it costs. The American Dream is a grim fantasy. In fact, the Sweet Land of Liberty is, more often than not, a brutal landscape of winners and losers wherein it is right and good and proper to lay out anything or anyone that gets in the way of victory. Armed cosplay Cossacks roam state and federal seats of government with violent tantrums in a vain and prolonged anti-authoritarian circle jerk with no apparent goal beside “owning the libs!”

But even now the Super Bowl is still our grand national midwinter festival. And it’s still the absurdly grandiose socio-economic advertising showcase for corporate cultural doublespeak. On one hand, we have the NFL putting on the brave and noble face of the Social Justice Warrior, decrying the slights by teams toward Black head coaching candidates and displaying anti-racist slogans on end zones and the names of those slain by police on players’ helmets. On the other hand, Tom Brady is free to move on from his heavily hinted support for the MAGA agenda while Colin Kaepernick remains outside of a league in search of quarterbacks and coaches looking in, despite all the apparent vindication of the cause that drove him from the League in the first place, three seasons ago. As behind the Shield, so in front: equality is much more easily said than done.

Americans like to elevate competition to lofty levels of righteous endeavor where “handouts” from public funds are profanities leading to the downfall of Western civilization. Our sports industry is held up, at least somewhat correctly, as a pure meritocracy. At least, that is the public image presented on the field of play. Meanwhile, back in the front office, major privately owned sports franchises could not exist as we know them without privatized profits and socialized costs in the form of huge public subsidies granted them by their host cities; and not uncommonly under the threat of uprooting whole teams and all their storied histories and statistical records to far flung and hungrier metropolises with the elusive promise of “jobs.”

‘[C]onsider the Atlanta Falcons’ new stadium, which cost $2 billion for construction — $700 million of which was paid by local taxpayers. While proponents may talk about a multiplier effect, several theoretical and empirical studies of local economic impact of stadiums have shown that beliefs that stadiums have an impact that matches the amount of money that residents pay are largely unfounded. The average stadium generates $145 million per year, but none of this revenue goes back into the community….

‘Spending $700 million in areas like education or housing could have long-term positive consequences with the potential for long-term increases in the standard of living and economic growth.

‘Additionally, it is important to consider that public financing is largely helping billionaires pay less for a service that they can afford. This dangerous precedent is an unnecessary privilege rather than a necessity. These sports teams are supported by successful owners who are capable of funding stadiums themselves. The owners will be compensated handsomely through the profits received through ticket sales, corporate advertising, and concessions over the next several decades. Public subsidies are an unfortunate power play used by these influential teams on local communities that are emotionally attached to sports teams, and a shift to making these projects private is going to be important moving forward.’

Major league sports franchises have even accepted federal public dollars from the Pentagon in public-private partnerships promoting all branches of the Armed Forces.

Back in 2015, a study by now former Arizona Senators Jeff Flake and the late John McCain busted the NFL and Pentagon for what they called “paid patriotism.” The Republican senators reported that the Pentagon paid upwards of $6.8 million for performative patriotic displays, not only at NFL games but Major League Baseball, National Hockey League, National Basketball Association, NASCAR, Major League Soccer and several college sports programs. At the time, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell wrote back to the senators citing an audit showing that $723,734 “may have been mistakenly applied to appreciation activities rather than recruitment efforts,” over the course of four seasons.

As a younger person, I enjoyed playing football in neighborhood parks but never played in pads. I still find football to be exciting and enjoyable entertainment. The athleticism, teammate cooperation and heart required to execute a game plan to prevail against highly talented competition is still worthy of my emotional investment. As a product, as an industry and as an institution, football has grown into, at best, a guilty pleasure.

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