By Andrew D. Linden and Lindsay Parks Pieper
There is much to criticize in the National Football League (NFL). From the deplorable off-field antics of the players to the inherent brain-damaging violence of the sport, the NFL stands as a powerful bastion of immorality. Despite the apparent and much-discussed transgressions of the league, many scholars are reluctant to give up the spectacle entirely. Sport historians, in particular, oftentimes remain devoted to the NFL, regularly tuning in to cheer for specific teams and athletes. One of us (ADL) remains a loyal (and frequently heartbroken) fan of the Cleveland Browns. Throughout my graduate school tenure at Penn State, I frequently made the three-hour-trek to FirstEnergy Stadium to support the squad. The other (LPP) continues to stand with the New York Giants, even as I live in a sea of Washington football fans. My 2014 fantasy team, Pierre Paul and Mary, took home the first place prize, defeating Linden in the process.
We are both home-town supporters. As academics, however, our fandom leaves us uneasy. Should our feminist leanings automatically push us into a policy of strict non-engagement? Should our concerns about the prevalence of classism, racism, sexism, and homophobia in the NFL lead us to avoid the league entirely?
What are we to do?
Perhaps our struggle to give up the NFL, to simply move on to greener (and more morally permissible) pastures reflects stubbornness. Perhaps we are hypocrites, unable to shed our social privilege. Maybe it points to our inability, as David Zang writes during similar grappling with his Penn State football fandom, to “entertain the possibility that we’ve lived a foolish life.” In any scenario, the NFL, at least for now, is not going away. Perhaps, then, it is wiser to call for change within the system. As Time columnist Eliana Dockterman writes, rather than shutting down and tuning out, it’s best “to scream at the top of [our] lungs.”
Tonight, the Pittsburgh Steelers will run onto the field at New England’s Gillette Stadium to take on the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots. In doing so, these two teams will kick off the 2015 professional football season. With peewee, high school, and college varieties of the gridiron game already in motion, the NFL’s Thursday night pageantry adds to American football’s fall launch and ends seven months of pro-football-less weekends.
The beginning of the season also ushers in a (perhaps temporary) conclusion to months of off-the-field drama, highlighted by ongoing front-page news material provided by the Patriots’ deflation of balls. While Tom Brady, Robert Kraft, and Roger Goodell instigated TMZ-like entertainment (and continue to do so) over “Deflategate,” other, more important, instances continue to cast the NFL in poor light.
Domestic violence remains a harbinger of a league run amok. Many teams fail in their attempts to market themselves to female fans, as represented by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ recent launch of “Red: The Buccaneers’ Women’s Movement.” People from far and wide have castigated Daniel Snyder for refusing to change the racist name of the Washington football team. And players frequently retire earlier and earlier because of the always expanding, and devastating, realization of the dangers of the sport. Unfortunately, the loud and raucous roar of fans at stadia and saloons across the country will likely quiet these damning narratives.
Most prominently over the past few weeks have been stories of the new Sony Pictures Entertainment film, Concussion. Based on the developments that led to public awareness of the effects of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) in former NFL players, the movie’s trailer led to discussions of the upcoming film’s potential for social change. However, soon after the launch of the trailer, online hackers released private emails that showed how Sony executives altered the film in a marketing effort to avoid antagonizing the NFL. “We’ll develop messaging with the help of [an] N.F.L. consultant,” read one email, “to ensure that we are telling a dramatic story and not kicking the hornet’s nest.” Another email noted that Sony wanted to avoid “unflattering moments” for the league.
It is not surprising that some business partners comply with NFL desires. Many of the league’s economic associates have their own profits in mind. For example, viewers of HBO’s Hard Knocks often leave the show with warm feelings toward the NFL; the show rarely follows the serious transgressions of players, or focuses on head injuries. Sony, however, has no serious affiliation with professional football. Nonetheless, it bowed down to the Goliath that is the National Football League.
Do we need to continually kowtow to the NFL? Literature on consumer behavior that large corporate institutions (like the NFL) take seriously suggests that we should not.
As marketing scholar Craig A. Martin explains in his study of the NFL: “Socially motivated consumers make purchase decisions based on the social ramifications that they perceive are related to their purchases, and will purchase products that are expected to have positive social implications.” Further, multiple scholars, such as Matthew Walker and Aubrey Kent, find that fans care about the corporate social responsibility of their chosen teams, and they proclaim that NFL teams, in particular, should make such practices an “integral part of their mission.”
Yet, spectators have also detached their fandom from their social views while watching football. As sports agent Leigh Steinberg wrote in 2014, during the midst of the Ray Rice controversy: “Fans appear to distinguish between their abhorrence of domestic violence and condemnation of the perpetrators and league handling them on the one hand, and enjoyment of the sport on the other.” This is beginning to change, however. As Jezebel writer Erin Gloria Ryan explains:
When you pay for an officially-licensed product, or a ticket to an event, or contribute to the audience of a game so that the entity behind the game can charge advertisers more money to advertise products during the game, you are contributing to the entity behind the event or license in a monetary way, even if you feel kind of bad about it when you’re doing it.
While ridding the country of all the problems that football causes may, for some, be a viable (and preferable) option, the amount of money in the game today engenders a different approach. Big-time football listens to its customers. And scholars continue to suggest that team commitment and the fostering of lifelong fans remains of the utmost importance to the economic sustainability of the sport.
And, perhaps most importantly, there are historical examples of football changing its ways because of public pressures regarding social concerns.
Violence and Institutional Change
The NFL is undoubtedly a dominate force today; however, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, college football garnered the most fans. Because both the larger public and sport practitioners lauded amateurism as ideal, many frowned upon the pro game. Widespread belief held that “gentlemen” should not profit from their sporting prowess. Hence, the public celebrated the college game while they spurned professional football as lowbrow and disorganized. Yet, although increasingly popular in the early 1900s, college football also faced social misgivings. The sport’s leaders adjusted the parameters of the game when social outcry demanded reform.
The crisis of public confidence reached a head during the 1905 season. Newspaper accounts suggested that football caused numerous deaths, thereby sparking social panic. For example, the Washington Post claimed that, between 1900 and 1905, at least forty players died from broken backs, broken necks, concussions, and internal injuries. A particular incident that occurred in a match in October 1905 between Swarthmore College and the University of Pennsylvania further fanned public concern. In the game, Robert “Tiny” Maxwell suffered a broken nose, but continued to play despite blood streaming down his face and his eyes swelling shut. Popular mythology suggests that a newspaper published an image of Maxwell’s maligned face, increasing fans’ angst about the violence of the sport. Although many historians dispute the validity of this anecdote because of the impossibility of locating the supposed photograph, the story is in line with newspaper accounts of the era.
Along with the reports of bloodshed, President Teddy Roosevelt, an ardent football supporter, joined the chorus of pleas for reform. In the midst of the bloody 1905 season, he invited delegates from Harvard, Princeton, and Yale to discuss the status and future of the sport. The president called for a reduction of violence; however, his actual influence on changes was limited and has since been overstated.
More influentially, on November 21, 1905, Union College halfback Harold Moore died of cerebral hemorrhaging caused by a football injury. When he attempted to tackle the New York University ball carrier, his teammate accidentally kneed Moore in the head. More so than the image of Maxwell or the White House Conference, Moore’s death sparked mass public outcry. The Chicago Tribune labeled the 1905 season a “death harvest,” while the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune published a political cartoon titled “The Grim Reaper Smiles on the Goal Posts.” Although these accounts greatly over-exaggerated the number of fatalities, the fuel for the public fire had been added.
University faculty and presidents joined the opposition. For example, the dean of the divinity school at the University of Chicago told the New York Times that football was a “social obsession, a boy killing, education-prostituting, gladiatorial sport.” Historian Frederick Jackson Turner, most famous for his “Frontier Thesis,” became caught up in the clamor and called upon the University of Michigan president to reform the sport.
The demands for change, in line with Progressive Era thinking, eventually succeeded. At the end of the brutal 1905 season, representatives from sixty-two academic institutions met to appoint a rules committee. Furthermore, in March of the following year, the sixty-two schools formed the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States (IAAUS), the predecessor to the NCAA. According to historian Ronald A. Smith, while the IAAUS wrestled with other issues, such as commercialization, eligibility, and professionalism, the organization importantly implemented rule changes to curb violence in football. The resultant “Revolution of 1906” added significant regulations to the sport, from doubling the first-down distance to ten yards, to abolishing mass momentum plays, such as the dangerous “flying wedge.” Most significantly, the new stipulations legalized the forward pass, opening the style of play and decreasing collisions.
Yet, much to the public’s chagrin, the 1906 “revolution” actually did little to quash the violence. Following the 1909 season, reports of football deaths again reverberated. And again, public objection emerged. “The criticism that followed that season showed that the participants wanted mainly to solve the injury crisis and preserve the college game,” explains historian John S. Watterson. Football authorities heeded the concern and instituted additional changes to reduce the brutality of the sport. Over the next few years, they further opened the passing game, and even introduced a “roughing the passer” rule. These changes, it seems, occurred because of social anxieties. The adjustments rendered that stemmed from social fears eventually extended into pro football as well.
A “Respectable” Pastime
Throughout the first few decades of professional football’s existence, the American public did not consider it a viable or respectable option for men of a certain status. As historian Richard Crepeau writes, the “upper and middle classes objected to the concept itself.” Many white American males who attended college and played on intercollegiate football teams did not turn pro, as most top-flight prospects attempt to do today. After the NFL formed in 1920, the game still lacked mainstream respectability. It was not until University of Illinois star running back Harold “Red” Grange took to the field with the Chicago Bears in 1925, according to historian John Carroll, that the tide began to shift. For Grange, though, playing professional football remained about money, which continued to frustrate the masses of Americans who preferred the lily-white “amateur” version of the sport be played campuses; public opinion looked down on the sport-commercial nexus. That Grange partnered with the well-known theater and sports owner CC “Cash and Carry” Pyle only exacerbated this view of pro football with many Americans.
One way that many still saw football as representational of professional vice was through gambling and racketeering. Many NFL owners, for instance, came from the world of gambling, crime, and urban politics. Tim Mara, the owner of New York’s Giants, was a member of political machine Tammany Hall. Art Rooney made a fortune at the Saratoga Race Tracks before purchasing the Steelers in 1927. And Charles Bidwell, owner of the Chicago Cardinals, also worked for the Sportsman Park racetrack. Some football fans were aware of these “vices” in the game. But in the 1940s, football’s gambling problem became mainstream.
While gambling and supposed fixes were always tethered to the sport, in 1946 the commissioner Elmer Layden woke to news that players on the New York Giants supposedly had been offered money to throw the league’s championship game versus the Chicago Bears. As historian Michael Lomax documents, a year later, commissioner Bert Bell suspended the two players indefinitely. Importantly, writes Lomax “Press reaction reinforced Bell’s suspension.” Bell also implemented new procedures such as hiring an FBI investigator to monitor gambling in the league, and to improve procedures that would make it harder for gamblers to associate with NFL players. The demand of the press, and consequently the public, it seems, began to change the institutional structure of the league.
The drive for respectability remained for the next few decades. New commissioner Pete Rozelle found gambling still an issue in the early 1960s. In response, he famously suspended star players Alex Karras of the Detroit Lions and the Green Bay Packers’ Paul Hornung for an entire season because of their associations with gambling. Most historians now agree that Rozelle used the players as a scapegoat in order to protect Baltimore Colts’ owner Carroll Rosenbloom, who had a known affinity for the race tracks. Some also argue that the public did not generally care about gambling. In any case, however, Rozelle and the NFL acted on the presupposition that public demand dictate they rid the league of social vice; social sentiment, yet again, led to institutional action. As Crepeau writes: “As the quintessential public relations man, Rozelle placed image at the top of his priority list for the league, and he saw himself as the defender of the “American One Way.” This American one way, throughout the 1940s, 1950s, and even the early 1960s, still held dominant sway in the minds of many Americans.
Drugs and Steroids
By the 1970s, doping emerged as another vice that threatened the league’s respectability. According to writer Jack Scott, drugs and sport were “becoming as common among athletes as the wearing of socks.” For example, in 1963, the San Diego Chargers hired strength coach Alvin Roy who distributed Dianabol, a steroid, to his athletes. The Chargers won the AFL championship that year and became the league’s first “steroid team.” Yet, the Chargers were not the only squad making use of chemical enhancement. According to Sports Illustrated writer Bil Gilbert, there were “some players on almost every NFL and AFL team that have taken drugs.” College player Ken Ferguson agreed. “Anybody who has graduated from college to professional football in the last four years has used them,” he told Gilbert. Although the widespread nature of drug use was well known, explains physical culture scholar Terry Todd, the NFL initially chose “the ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’ approach to the problem.” Yet, when fans demanded clean sport, the league took notice.
With Reagan’s “War on Drugs” spreading stories of widespread drug use, public concerns bled into sport. In 1984, the NFL reluctantly addressed the issue, focusing solely on the users and abusers of illicit drugs. With no concrete plan in place, the 1983 Collective Bargaining Agreement encouraged players to step forward with personal issues and promised confidentiality for those who did. This half-hearted attempt did little to lessen fan concerns.
The public desire for drug-free sport increased in 1986. On June 19, All-American University of Maryland basketball player Len Bias died of a cocaine overdose, two days after the Boston Celtics selected him as the second overall pick in the NBA draft. Then, just over a week later, Cleveland Brown safety Don Rogers died of a heart attack caused by cocaine use, one day before his wedding. The public and dramatic nature of Bias’ and Rogers’ deaths increased the calls for stricter controls of drug use in sport. As Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post explained, “Rozelle feels the enormous pressure of public outrage. The NFL should have addressed the issue of amphetamines 20 years ago, of steroids 15 years ago, of pain killers 10 years ago and cocaine five years ago. But it didn’t.” Swayed by negative publicity, Rozelle finally instituted changes.
In 1986, the NFL commissioner implemented a new drug policy. The plan required three checks for all players: one at training camp and two unscheduled during the season. Amphetamines, angel dust, cocaine, marijuana, and Quaaludes appeared on the banned substance list; steroids did not. While the initial, tepid policy focused on self-identified drug users, the 1986 plan extended to include those injured by enhanced athletes. “Our concern,” said Rozelle , “is the health and welfare of the players–those taking drugs and those injured by those taking drugs.” However, the NFL commissioner outlined this plan without the permission of the NFL Players Association. It was not until the following year when the two sides reached an agreement and added steroids to the list. In 1987, the NFL instituted an official drug testing policy that permitted year-round testing.
Public outcry prompted Rozelle’s response. As Crepeau explains, “The notion that Rozelle was genuine in these statements defies all credulity. For the commissioner the primary concern was always public perception.” His attention to the fans “took precedence over concern for the players, the integrity of the game, the views of the medical profession, or concerns of the law.” This power of public perception held sway into the next decade.
The “New NFL” and the “Common Fan”
By the 1990s, the NFL became a multi-billion dollar enterprise. The league reached this level, in part, because of its success in three areas: labor, TV contracts, and stadium revenue. Oriard (and others) refers to these successes as the “new NFL.” This “new NFL,” however, generated public debate on the economics of the game, particularly in relation to the socio-economic breakdown of the league’s fan bases. In the 1990s, an era after the zenith of “greed is good” culture that overtook the country, fans began to see the NFL as an exemplar of hyper-corporate capitalism. They despised business decisions, especially when many led to teams relocating (or threatening such action) from one city to another. The newly required payment of Personal Seat Licenses (PSLs) also produced consumer scorn. As Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist Bud Shaw explained, “PSLs are a lesser evil than taxpayer money, but barely.” In general, fans across the country grew weary of owners consistently working to improve the bottom line.
The growing cost of NFL football didn’t help.
During this time period, the Fan Cost Index of going to an NFL game exploded. In the early 1990s, a family of four could attend a game for $150; by the end of the decade, the number reached $250, and by 2005, it escalated to $600 for the league’s top teams. Some saw the high prices and concern with owner profits as representational of an NFL that catered to the elite. This new business model created a market that only affluent consumers could purchase. Journalist Dave Zirin referred to the league as a “blue-collar game at white-collar prices.” Ohio Senator John Glenn pushed Congress to pass a “Fans’ Rights” bill. Even former NFL Commissioner Rozelle believed that the “new NFL” “may be the biggest problem the league has ever faced.” Many fans, particularly those not sitting in the suites at games, felt more and more disenfranchised from the corporate environment of NFL football.
Just as it did throughout the earlier twentieth century, football adjusted to cater to social demands. And, ultimately, fans and consumers did not turn away from the sport. Over the last twenty years, the league did not fall victim to 1990s critiques of its ignoring of the “common fan.” Instead, the NFL adopted practices that broadened the fan base. Fantasy football, for example, became a staple of the league’s marketing approach. The NFL also made efforts to expand its web and digital presences, now offering fans myriad ways to engage with NFL product, other than paying the exorbitant prices to sit in stadiums such as the billion-dollar coliseum in Dallas, or “Jerry’s World.” And the league also recently reinvigorated its efforts to market to women fans. (Unfortunately, many of these approaches are laden with hetero-sexisim.)
These efforts led to a stronger and more diverse fan base. Sadly, what they did not do, and as most decisions spurred by the capitalist market fail to do, was to remedy any social ills in society. Yet, the NFL’s reactions to working-class consumer angst in the 1990s suggests the league’s ability to take seriously the demands of large and vocal social collectives.
What Are We To Do?
At different moments throughout history, football adapted to the social and cultural milieu. Yet, new issues continuously arrive, adding fuel to the fire of dismantling the sport for the greater good. Many of the changes football institutes (re)produces new or old issues. From adapting the game in the early twentieth century, to listening to public outcry over the loss of the “common fan” in the 1990s, football attempted to appease social sentiment; yet, it never turned away from its capitalist enterprise. In fact, since Roger Goodell has taken his oath to control the NFL, the league reportedly has raised its annual profit to nearly $10 billion. In this instance, like many others, even while (in at least one way) succumbing to social pressure, power has continued to reproduce power.
In that vein, the NFL cannot and should not be a barometer of social good, nor a staple of moral fortitude. Maybe the NFL, like other conglomerates thinking they are “too big to fail,” will succumb in future years. Maybe fans will say “enough is enough.” Maybe corporations will pull sufficient advertising dollars, or maybe enough parents will bar their children from playing the sport, that the league will cease to exist.
For the time being, though, we can and should continually call out the league for its injustices. Fans are more than just passive spectators; we are constituents to the product on the field. In a time where NFL owners rely on public money to build and renovate billion-dollar cathedrals, we have a stake in shaping the future of the sport. How we do this can differ. We can hold owners, players, and coaches accountable for their transgressions. We can refuse to buy into the corporate welfare mentality of NFL business. We can refuse to ignore classism, racism, sexisim, and homophobia in the sport. We can make demands for a safer brand of football.
When it comes down to it, football needs fans to survive. And that, we should never forget.
Andrew D. Linden is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Adrian College. He is the co-editor of Sport in American History. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and can be followed on Twitter @AndrewDLinden. He also maintains his own website at www.andrewdlinden.com.
Lindsay Parks Pieper is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Lynchburg College and the Book Review Editor of Sport in American History. She can be reached at email@example.com and can be followed on Twitter @LindsayPieper. Check out her website at www.lindsayparkspieper.com.