Believe In Something: A Progressive Football Fan’s Manifesto

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Philadelphia Eagles players, including social justice bad-ass Malcolm Jenkins, raise their fists in solidarity during the national anthem at Soldier Field in Chicago. Photo source: CBS Sports

If you’re a progressive (if you’re anyone, really) there is a multitude of extremely justifiable reasons to not support the NFL. There’s the inherently violent nature of the game of football and the league’s refusal to properly acknowledge concerns about concussions and CTE. There’s the corrupt commissioner and the odious owners who punish smoking marijuana more strictly than domestic abuse. There’s literally everything about the team that plays in the District of Colombia. There’s the brain damage, the suicides, the homophobic bullying, the misogynistic treatment of cheerleaders, the well-established racism, the shameless commercialism, the military partnerships, the appropriation of taxpayer dollars to pay for new stadiums just so a team can relocate to a bigger market, anyway. There’s Ray Rice, Greg Hardy, Aaron Hernandez, Josh Brown, Darren Sharper, Michael Vick, Richie Incognito, LeSean McCoy, and Jameis Winston, just to name a few of the most problematic people in the recent history of the sport. And of course, there’s the national anthem, the league apparently bending to the will of Donald Trump and his white supremacist followers, and the blatant blackballing of Colin Kaepernick for his activism, which seems to be the reason that most of the football fans I know have finally had enough.

The 2018 NFL season begins tonight, and I can’t blame you even a little bit if you won’t be watching. If the numerous crimes of this league are morally abhorrent to you, if spending your Sundays doing anything other than watching football makes you feel better as a person, you won’t get any judgment from me. The NFL has given you more than enough reason to boycott, more than enough reason to tune out.

Here’s why I’m not.

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Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid kneeling during the national anthem. Photo source: Sporting News

First of all, let’s talk about Kaepernick and the anthem protests, because it seems to me there’s a narrative going around that, while not exactly false, is certainly being presented without context. I’ve been kicking this piece around in my head since back in May, when the NFL announced a new rule for the 2018 season by which players would be punished for failing to stand for the national anthem. Everyone knew it was a direct response to the previous season, in which the peaceful protests against racist police violence initiated by Kaepernick spread throughout the league, causing numerous players and sometimes entire teams to kneel or show some other form of solidarity during the national anthem, a situation that was only exacerbated when the Pustule in Chief openly called for protesting players to be fired. When the NFL announced that players who chose to kneel or otherwise protest during the singing of the anthem would be fined unless they stayed in the locker room, my Facebook feed suddenly lit up with friends and family announcing that they would no longer support the league in any way. This pandering to Trump’s whims, this authoritarian display of wealthy white dominance, was the last straw for them. And again, that position is wholly justifiable.

But in certain circles, those more closely connected with the game and, in particular, left-leaning football media, the new anthem policy was, more than anything else, a joke. What the owners were trying to do was reprehensible, of course, but there was no possible way the rule would stand. For one thing, it violated the collective bargaining agreement with the NFL Players Association (the football players’ union), because the owners didn’t consult or negotiate with the NFLPA at any point during the process. As a result, it couldn’t stand up to scrutiny even by the league’s own rules. For another thing, the policy didn’t actually fine specific players; it fined the teams they played for (“team” as in business entity, not as in a group of players). This was meant to give the individual team organizations an incentive to take punitive action against players violating the policy, thus putting the onus on each franchise as opposed to the NFL. However, the players themselves had no financial incentive to follow the policy, and word quickly spread of entire units and entire teams’ worth of players making plans to protest the anthem as one. What was an owner supposed to do in that case, fire the entire team? Moreover, what was initially reported by the NFL as a unanimous vote among the owners was almost instantly revealed to be a sham, and more than one owner undermined the policy immediately by saying it wouldn’t be enforced in their organizations. Lastly, it was obvious to everyone except the NFL itself that this policy, which the owners and the commissioner did not in any way need to enact, would lead to an enormous backlash against the league and an absolute ocean of terrible PR. It was funny because the NFL had willingly made an ass out of itself for no reason, and the only lasting result would be bad press and a swift retraction of the anthem rule.

And the moment a team tried to actually comply with the rule, that’s exactly what happened. In July, the Miami Dolphins released an updated team disciplinary policy that included fines and suspensions for protesting during the anthem. The backlash was as instantaneous as anyone could have predicted, and as a fiery. Several players came out and said they didn’t care, they would continue to protest and take whatever punishment they were given without complaint. The new rule had thus already failed to quash protests and flooded the NFL in negative attention, which again, anyone with a working brain could have seen coming, and there were still 31 teams left to announce their own 2018 disciplinary policies. Not even Roger Goodell was stupid enough to let that happen. The anthem rule was suspended, and just like that, the thing that made so many people announce they were quitting football went up in smoke.

Now, it’s true that despite all that, Colin Kaepernick still doesn’t have a job in the NFL. Neither does Eric Reid, the other face of the anthem protests. But even in that regard, things appear to be moving in a positive direction. Kaepernick is suing the league for collusion in keeping him out of the game, and while his lawsuit was initially met with skepticism, the recent decision by a judge that there was enough evidence for the case to continue suggests that it might not be such a long shot, after all. And we all know there’s only one reason Nike chose to feature Kaepernick’s face in a high-profile advertisement released earlier this week – it’s not because the Patron Saint of Sweatshop Profits gives a damn about Kaepernick’s message, it’s because they can smell the way the wind is blowing. Nike, the official supplier of NFL uniforms and sideline gear, thinks it will put itself in a better financial position by supporting Kaepernick than it will by ignoring him. That’s huge. That’s a shift in the balance of power. I don’t know if Kaepernick will ever play quarterback again, but it doesn’t look like we’ll be seeing any more official policies from the NFL about kneeling during the national anthem. At this point, the NFL can either stay put or veer left. The choice they make likely depends on what the players do this season, which is one of the reasons I’m so excited to watch.

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NFL owners and presidents as portrayed on South Park in the season 18 episode “Go Fund Yourself.” Photo source: South Park Wikia

The league’s anthem rule has gone bye-bye, but there’s still…all that other stuff. Part of me wishes I had stopped watching football when Rice was only suspended for two games, or when Hardy got a job with the Dallas Cowboys. Why didn’t I? Tom Brady was suspended four games for throwing a slightly deflated football, but Jameis Winston sexually assaults an Uber driver and is suspended for only three? To me that’s worse than anything involving the national anthem. Why don’t I stop now?

There are three reasons. The first is the most obvious and the least forgivable: I love watching football. I’m sorry, I just do. I love it. I love cheering my Chicago Bears (who might actually be relevant this season for the first time in over a decade), I love playing fantasy football, I love spending my Sundays watching the game grow and evolve, I love being part of this particular community of fandom. And I’m one of those people who started watching as an adult; I can’t even claim a childhood connection such as using football as a way to bond with my dad (my dad and I mostly watched basketball when I was a kid). It’s one thing for people who have never been football fans to decry the moral pitfalls of the game. It’s one thing for me, someone who chose this fandom with complete adult agency, to do the same thing. It’s another thing to ask this sacrifice of people whose entire lives have been shaped by their relationship with football, and like it or not, that’s a higher percentage of the population than you can even imagine.

But I realize that sacrifices must be made for morality, and I also realize that the act of sacrifice means far more when it’s something you truly love. And maybe I would be willing to sacrifice football as something I enjoy and choose to be a part of, if I honestly thought it would do any good beyond making myself feel clean.

Again, no shade thrown on feeling clean – that’s a legitimate thing to want. Just be advised, if you plan on boycotting the NFL this season, that feeling clean is the only thing you will accomplish. This isn’t a “we’ll never make a difference, the corporations are too big and too strong” argument; I tend to think that progressives probably could put a pretty severe dent in the NFL’s ratings if properly organized. The thing is, though, that because of the league’s unique relationship with television, lowering their ratings really wouldn’t do that much. Last season, when Trump decided he was going to make the national anthem one of his many, many hills to die on, he frequently trumpeted the fact that the NFL’s ratings were down. And it’s true, they were. But the response to that, as elucidated by pretty much everyone on Twitter after the idiot opened his mouth, was that all the ratings were down. In the age of streaming services, general viewership of network television is dropping like a stone, and it won’t be that long before it hits rock bottom. Why hasn’t it hit rock bottom already? Because SPORTS.

That’s not an exaggeration. Sports are the only shows on television that still bring in enough advertising revenue to keep TV networks afloat, because they’re the only shows on television still capable of drawing a single, massive, live audience. And despite the fact that the NBA is currently rising like a rocket fueled by fast pacing and charismatic superstars, the NFL remains (for now) the unquestioned king of televised sports. If companies weren’t willing to pony up so much money to place ads during Sunday Night Football, NBC might not even exist in 2018. It costs $5 million to place a 30-second ad during the Superbowl, which rotates annually between NBC, CBS, and Fox and has a dramatic financial impact each time it changes networks. ABC, meanwhile, is the power behind ESPN, and the NFL continues to be supremely important in maintaining subscription numbers for cable networks, as well. Simply put, the value of football as a media property cannot be overstated.

The NFL is currently in the middle of a series of TV deals that extend until 2021 and 2022 and are worth approximately $27 billion dollars. That means it’s going to be at least another three years before ratings will matter even the tiniest amount. And even if the NFL’s ratings were to drop precipitously by then, the league would still possess 100% of the leverage in negotiating their new TV deals, just as they possessed 100% of the leverage in negotiating their current TV deals, because for all four networks, losing the NFL would be a death sentence. You need to be rich already to be an NFL owner, but at this moment in time, they are in zero danger of not getting richer, no matter how many people stop watching.

In fact, the people most likely to be smacked in the pocketbooks via an NFL boycott are not the owners, but the players. The NFL salary cap, which determines how much money teams can spend on player contracts, is determined as a result of the league’s revenue. If revenue goes down, so does the cap, which means players are getting paid less. Now, if you’re thinking to yourself, “Oh no, a dude only getting paid $15 million instead of $20 million to throw a ball, WHATEVER SHALL WE DO,” I agree and sympathize with your sarcasm. Nonetheless, the point stands – nobody who owns an NFL team is going bankrupt before each and every person who plays for that team goes bankrupt first. And it’s the players, not the owners, who are giving their money to charity and using their platforms to make a difference.

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Malcolm Jenkins’ silent press conference. Photo source: NBC Sports Philadelphia

I don’t support the NFL. I support NFL players. Sure, the league has more than its share of scumbags like Winston and McCoy, but it also has people like Andrew Hawkins, who demanded justice for Tamir Rice; people like Malcolm Jenkins, who won’t stop telling you you’re not listening; people like Michael Bennett, who wrote a book with Dave Zirin called “Things That Make White People Uncomfortable; people like Chris Long, who gave away his entire paycheck to charity; people like Chris Kluwe, who has been one of the most relentless forces for social justice to ever come out of the sports world. And there are so, so many more. As I get older and my perspective on football fandom changes, I’ve found far less joy in the struggles of the floundering Bears than I have in watching my favorite individual players compete in and win football games. Chicago went 5-11 last season and missed the playoffs by a mile, but watching the Philadelphia Eagles, who employed Jenkins, Long, and other activists like Lane Johnson and Torrey Smith, defeat the Trump-stumping Tom Brady and the president’s favorite team, the New England Patriots, in the Superbowl was the greatest feeling I’ve ever had as a sports fan. And while I’ve always tried to tell people why they should be proud of certain NFL players for their actions, I’ve never been prouder to be a fan of a sports figure as I am proud to be a fan of Colin Kaepernick, who I’ve loved ever since he decimated the hated Green Bay Packers in a playoff game ten million years ago.

I do see a potential future scenario in which public outcry leads to the NFL’s downfall, and I don’t think it’s unrealistic or even unlikely. The CTE issue isn’t going away, and we may eventually realize, some with heavier hearts than others, that it simply isn’t possible to safely play a game that involves people running into each other. But the loss of football wouldn’t necessarily be a win for the left. Despite all the corruption and racism endemic to both the collegiate and professional games, football remains one of the only true sources of dramatic social mobility for black people in America (it’s true that a greater percentage of black people play basketball, but basketball teams represent fewer opportunities than football teams because basketball rosters are considerably smaller). Like all systems that exist under capitalism, it sucks, but the fact remains that there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of schools and social programs throughout the country that only exist because a black football player was given a really big check for playing a game that will probably destroy his ability to think straight later in life and decided to do something good with it. Their sacrifice matters, the same way Kaepernick’s sacrifice matters. The man has been unceremoniously drummed out of his profession, and for what? So the people who stand with him in his convictions can actively try to destroy the game to which he so desperately wants to return? Or did Colin Kaepernick do what he did because he knew how many people his message would reach because he was a football player, because he knew how many football lovers, fans and players alike, cared enough about justice to respond to his call to action?

Stop watching football? Are you kidding? Has the NFL ever been populated with such an empowered roster of players? What will they do this year? How many will kneel? How many will speak out? Will the league be foolish enough to try and stop them again? Will the president? One of the great cultural battles of our time is being fought on the gridiron, and I’m supposed to leave it to the morons out there burning their own shoes because they think it will negatively affect the quarterly income of fucking Nike? If every progressive stopped watching football starting tonight, how unlikely does it suddenly become that the game will ever get safer or less bigoted? What’s the point in abandoning that fight just as we’re starting to gain ground? We’re living in a world where the power of black athletes is overcoming the power of white billionaires, a world in which racists and conservatives are bragging about their departure from football fandom, and we’re not going to seize that moment and claim the game for our own? If you’re a progressive and you love football, now is not the time to boycott. Now is the time to stand up and demand change. Because if you don’t do it, nobody will. And because in a couple of years the XFL will be back and all the asshole football fans are going to take a flying leap aboard an already sinking ship. Yes, really.

That’s why I’ll be watching the 2018 NFL season, starting tonight. I will watch, and I will listen, and I will speak up. It isn’t much in the grand scheme of things, and probably nobody cares what I do, anyway, but it will make me feel better as a person, because I’ll be fighting for something I love.

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