Tonight, the Carolina Panthers will run onto the field at the Sports Authority Field at Mile High to take on the defending Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos. There are many on-the-field stories of interest. Can the Broncos continue their dominance from last season without the now retired quarterback Peyton Manning? How will Northwestern alum Trevor Siemian fare in his debut as the new leader of Denver’s offense? Can Cam Newton respond from his lackluster performance in February’s Super Bowl? Will Von Miller continue his dominance that earned him the the title of being the highest paid defensive player in the league? How much will the Panthers miss their former all-star cornerback Josh Norman? Delighted NFL fans across the country will surely discuss these queries today during lunch and happy hours.
However, these sport stories are not the only important topics of the day. The NFL provides many other important cultural narratives to consider because of its dominant place in U.S. culture. Indeed, professional football has become the most popular consumer sport in the country; as Richard Crepeau (and others) argue, it is the country’s “national pastime.” It has done this for a variety of reasons. For example, Michael Oriard argues that the league has become a “brand” in the American marketplace. Therefore, the NFL does not only create exciting on-the-field narratives, it produces many sites of contention within that culture that it dominates.
This post assess these sites of contention. Contributing authors Kate Aguilar, Sarah K. Fields, Daniel A. Nathan, Thomas P. Oates, and Travis Vogan have all written on the league, football, and/or American culture in a number of books and book chapters, journal articles, and a number of media outlets, and have various levels of fandom toward the league and specific teams. For the remainder of this post, they respond to various questions pointed toward deciphering how and why the game has become so powerful in U.S. society.
How do you view the NFL? (As a sport, business, entertainment, etc.; what is your personal stake in the league?) And why?
Before becoming a sport historian, I viewed the NFL as a business that ran the sport of professional football. Now, as someone who studies race and football, I recognize the NFL as a form of entertainment that does far more than run professional football. It helps facilitate how we think about the sport nationally and globally, as evidenced in the “NFL International Series,” and those who play it. It contributes to our cultural understandings of race, masculinity, sport, and the nation-state.
Sarah K. Fields
The NFL is a cartel: a massive monopoly which trades in the entertainment aspect of sport. I am a life-long football fan who is slowly overcoming my addiction. After abdicating my fandom of college sport for moral reasons, for the last ten years or so, I’ve clung to the NFL despite the physical damage the sport does to players, buoyed by the theory that these were adults who made informed choices and were paid for their pain.
But the NFL is a business and just as players are merely cogs, so are fans. I grew up in St. Louis, one of the few cities to be abandoned by two NFL teams. I forgave the NFL when the football Cardinals left because I was young and not all that invested. When the Rams moved to St. Louis, I became invested—the team was smart, holding open pre-season practices and having the players show up at public events. The rise of the Greatest Show on Turf was a heady time for St. Louis football fans. Despite the inevitable collapse of the Rams, I stayed a fan and shilled out for cable packages showing Rams’ games wherever I was living. When the Rams left, it was rock bottom. Now, I find it harder to ignore the damage to the players, I find it harder to excuse the greed of the owners, I find it harder to overlook the arbitrary behavior of the commissioner, and I find it harder to be an NFL fan.
Daniel A. Nathan
The NFL is a cultural phenomenon and a terrifically successful business. It is firmly ensconced in this culture; after all, it owns a day of the week, the film Concussion (2015) reminded us, “the same day the Church used to own.” And its annual revenue a few years ago was an estimated $12 billion. It effectively sells drama in the form of a barely sanitized, hyper-aggressive blood sport. Clifford Geertz says that every culture “loves its own form of violence.” Well, the NFL is our most popular sanctioned form of violence. (Hollywood violence is faux.) The NFL’s success is also linked to the powerful civic identity its teams are able to generate and sustain, for generations. In Pittsburgh, the Steelers are deeply meaningful to people and the community. The same goes for the Browns in Cleveland, the Packers in Green Bay, etc. The NFL is also a kind of ongoing, serialized masculine melodrama. Whose fortunes will rise this week? Whose will fall? Who will perform the next amazing, “heroic” feat? Who will be this week’s goat or fool? Titillated NFL fans want to know.
For me, the NFL is a guilty pleasure. I’m deeply ambivalent about it. Some of its values are antithetical to things that matter to me. In addition, the short- and long-term health effects of the game on its players should give anyone with a conscience pause. Is football an ethical game? Should we watch and consume football? Some thoughtful people think not. Occasionally, I do watch it, because I appreciate and admire the combination of grace, strength, and courage its players demonstrate. And I love a great punt return. But I watch and follow it less so than in the 1970s and 1980s, that is, up until the Colts left Baltimore in 1984. Since then, I have rooted for the professional team in Washington—the one that should change its name and logo. It is hard to follow and enjoy the NFL when you know the team you want to win traffics in racist iconography.
Thomas P. Oates
The NFL is more than a very popular and profitable form of entertainment – it is also a powerful cultural force. In addition to its impact on everything from the tax policies of major cities to the bills of cable television subscribers, it also provides a very visible set of stories about masculinity – what it should be, what seems to threaten it, and how it might be reimagined in new and compelling ways. The league is often caricatured as offering ossified, outdated visions of masculinity, but in fact, the media that cover the league offers a dynamic range of gender identities. Of course, the familiar tough guys are still around, but there are also sensitive coaches to savvy fan-investors. The league is also followed by millions of women, and as Vicky Johnson has argued, the league and its media partners offer a range of feminine identities as well. Each of these varieties offers fans a way to see the league as something that fits easily with their lifestyle, but more subtly, they offer through football a form of gendered citizenship that’s compatible with the economic and social demands of everyday life.
But what makes NFL fandom so powerful is that it can feel so intensely personal, almost inextricable from people’s identities. For lots of fans, a whole range of casual and intimate relationships are bound up with football. Maybe your dad was a Chicago Bears season ticket holder, or perhaps you watched the Eagles on TV with your grandmother, maybe you discuss the Giants at the watercooler with your friends at work on Monday, or use the game as reason to get together with college friends on the weekend for a few hours. I’m not much of a fan myself, but that’s probably due in large part to the fact that most of my family and early close friends were into other things. I have deep attachments to people through other sports, though, so I get it.
I think I can best describe the league as a cultural industry—a commercially driven enterprise that manufactures a product rife in cultural meanings and value. As a scholar, I am primarily interested in how the league expresses the relationship between commerce and culture. As a spectator/consumer/fan, I’m deeply ambivalent about the league—more so than the sport. I enjoy football and grew up playing. I was riding my bike to work last week and the cooler pre-autumn air immediately brought me back to memories of football practice in an almost Proustian manner. It was a really pleasant, almost warm feeling. But I’m incredibly frustrated and disappointed by how the NFL’s business interests so profoundly shape how the sport is packaged and understood.
What do you think the NFL means to Americans? (How/why did it gain this position?)
This is a tricky question because it is hard for me to divorce what football means to Americans from what the NFL means to Americans. I think that demonstrates how powerful their marketing is that I – and I imagine others – see them as one and the same. Football, as evidenced in the recent commentary surrounding San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, is intimately tied with militarism, nationalism, and patriotism in this country. Because of the NFL’s place as the most watched sport entertainment nationally, I think many Americans view professional football not just football as America’s game. ESPN, fantasy football, and the televised draft have furthered this connection between the organization, sport entertainment, and Americans. Still, the concern surrounding CTE, the league’s transparency, and the power of Commissioner Roger Goodell show that while people may love to watch the NFL it is hard to equate love for the game with love and respect for the organization.
Sarah K. Fields
Football is America’s national pastime; it is America’s game in a way that baseball was in the early twentieth century. I think this occurred largely football is perfect for television. It is perfect for television spectacle, showcasing cheerleaders, panoramic shots, slow motion acrobatics, and in-stadium advertising. Like baseball, football is slow moving, allowing the fan at home time to talk to friends, get a beer, use the restroom and not miss anything during the many, many commercials. Unlike baseball, football has massive violence and allows Americans the thrill of the vicarious hit, a hit in prior years that was enhanced with sound effects. Americans like the idea of being physically dominant; we enjoy the image of a large man crowing and preening over the body of another man. We also like to pretend that hit did no real damage, that somehow it is all part of the spectacle.
Daniel A. Nathan
What the NFL means to Americans is varied and contested. Obviously millions of Americans love the NFL. Grown men in face paint testify to this. Some of them primarily love the team for which they root. My wife, however, is not one of these football-philes. Her negative, highly critical attitude toward the NFL and the “stupid bowl” reminds me that not all Americans are buying what the NFL is selling. The NFL’s latest ad campaign suggests that it wants us to think “Football is Family.” For many people, I’m sure that’s true. For some of them and others, the NFL is an opportunity to express one’s self, including one’s aggression, rage, and perhaps inner-homicidal maniac. Comedian and cultural critic George Carlin was on to something when he said: “In football, during the game in the stands, you can be sure that at least twenty-seven times you’re capable of taking the life of a fellow human being.” My sense is that most American don’t want to think too hard about the NFL.
Thomas P. Oates
The NFL is a peculiarly national obsession. While the league enjoys unparalleled popularity in the U.S., it has very limited appeal outside its national boarders. Efforts to expand the game’s popularity and profitability beyond the U.S., though ongoing, have not yielded much success. Although they are by no means rare in other U.S. sports, the associations with nationalism and the military are especially strong through the NFL. Those associations did not just emerge from the ether – they were carefully fostered by government and cultural leaders over a long period of time, and were sometimes the result of contractual arrangements, like the ones recently revealed involving the Pentagon and NFL teams. There’s been lots of great work on the complex relationship between football and militarism recently by Michael Butterworth, Samantha King, Kyle Kusz, Jeff Montez de Oca, Kimberly Schimmel, and others.
The efforts by the league, the Pentagon, and other cultural/political leaders have succeeded to the point that for many people the NFL is a natural extension of the wider convergence of nationalism and militarism. When Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem, it was widely condemned as an attack on “the troops,” even though Kaepernick was not protesting militarism. The context of Kaepernick’s protest – that he did it as a football player before an NFL game – made the association seem almost self-evident.
I’m still trying to figure that out. Is it a distraction? Catharsis? Projection? Carnivalesque mini-ritual? Excuse to eat nachos? I suppose it means many things, which is what makes it an interesting thing to study and discuss.
What storyline(s) are you paying most attention to this year (on or off the field)?
Because of what I study and my own commitment to social justice, I closely follow the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport’s annual “The National Football League Racial and Gender Report Card,” which continues to point to a disparity in the number of White and non-White coaches in the NFL (and college football) and the number of non-White persons in management. Colin Kaepernick’s recent refusal to stand for the national anthem and the backlash he received from players and allegedly the NFL’s front offices, points to a continued disconnect between athletes of color and their White peers/organizational leadership.
Sarah K. Fields
Because I am a vindictive soon to be former-fan, I want the Los Angeles Rams to fail miserably as a team, and I would also like to see the coach and the GM fired. I want the owner to lose massive amounts of money. The latter won’t happen because NFL ownership is a sure bet investment right now, but I can hope. I will also follow the lawsuits over concussions and over-prescription of pain medications. But I live in Denver and am surrounded by the hype of the opening games, and so I drift back into fandom and find myself hoping that Sam Bradford and Adrian Peterson with the Minnesota Vikings do well. I will also root for the Green Bay Packers because that team will never leave Green Bay.
Daniel A. Nathan
I’m interested to see how the Patriots do without Tom Brady for the first four games of the season; how well Robert Griffin III plays in Cleveland (I’m rooting for him); and how the Colin Kaepernick saga unfolds. Regarding the latter, I am astounded that so many people are so concerned about whether he stands during the national anthem before games. A firm believer in the power of symbolism, I also think that the vitriol directed at Kaepernick suggests something about the inability of many people to accept and respect dissent and the lack of confidence they have in their own convictions. Football, seemingly more than most sports, demands and promotes conformity. So one guy—a mediocre player, at that—says, basically, “I’m going to make a political statement by not conforming for a few minutes before the game starts,” and suddenly he is an un-American ingrate? That does not make much sense to me. Protesting and taking a stand against discrimination and injustice is as American as, well, football and the NFL.
Thomas P. Oates
For me, the most interesting and important storyline is the number of players ending their careers early out of a concern for their long-term health. What I find so significant about this is that players are often not just calling time on their careers – they are sometimes connecting the violence they suffer to dominant ideals about masculinity. What is so powerful about this, I think, is that it makes possible a serious critique of hegemonic masculinity from within one of its most important and cherished bastions. Those asking fundamental questions about masculine ideals often seem to embody those very ideals, which makes them very difficult to dismiss.
So far, it seems like the Kaepernick situation is most compelling. The fact that the Santa Clara police are considering a boycott of San Francisco home games is fascinating (though perhaps not surprising). I’m eager to see how the NFL will respond as this continues, which I hope it does.
Do you feel that fantasy football and/or gambling shapes the way you or other fans engage the league?
There is no doubt that fantasy football provides a more intimate connection for fans, drawing more to the sport and the organization. Women are a growing segment of this population. It is hard to divorce their participation in fantasy football and as a viewing population with continued advancements in the league. Roger Goodell recently announced after the first “Women’s Summit” at Super Bowl 50 that the NFL would institute a Rooney rule for women, requiring the League office to interview women for executive positions.
Sarah K. Fields
Fantasy football was a genius way to keep fans in an era of free agency and constant player turnover. It encourages fans to root for specific players and not necessarily for teams. If I were a fantasy sport person, I might not have been so crushed by the departure of the Rams and I might have continued to have an interest in individual players. When I talk to serious fantasy football players, they all tell me that they have an NFL team which they root for, but that they care more about the success of the players they own. The name on the front of the jersey matters much less than the name on the back.
Daniel A. Nathan
Personally, I’m not interested in fantasy football or gambling on sport. I don’t do either. And I’m confident that these activities affect the way many fans watch, follow, think, and feel about the NFL. I imagine that some fantasy football participants and gamblers are increasingly influenced by the analytics movement, the desire to make data-based determinations on which players to pick and what bets to make. At the same time, fantasy football and gambling probably also contribute to the further commodification of athletes, who are reduced to their quantifiable performance and effectively dehumanized in the process. That cannot be a good thing.
Thomas P. Oates
I have written a lot about how fantasy football has changed NFL fandom. It’s clear that avid fantasy football gamers spend significantly more time watching NFL games than fans who don’t play. This fact helped the league overcome its longstanding unease about associations with gambling and embrace fantasy sports. I’ve argued that fantasy football alters relations between fans and players, presenting players as commodities that should be coolly assessed for hidden value. It’s not a coincidence that this has happened in an era when the majority of players in the league are black, and when what Randy Martin calls “the financialization of daily life” is in its ascendency. Fantasy football is doing more than providing entertainment. It’s creating new kinds of orientations for citizens.
It is impossible to overstate the impact fantasy sports have had on the consumption of football in the last 10 years—particularly since the advent of smart phones. It’s difficult to imagine now, but the NFL initially distanced itself from fantasy because of its association with gambling. Now fantasy sports are a driving force in the league and the different premium cable packages that it fosters. Stadiums are now protecting attendance by installing stronger wi-fi and even providing tablets so spectators can also keep up with their fantasy teams.
If you were NFL Commissioner, what would you do to improve the league/sport?
I have followed the Rooney rule closely, and I have great respect for what it represents. But, to paraphrase ESPN commentator Dan Le Batard, the issue is “cultural compatibility.” Providing persons of color and women of all races and ethnicities the chance to interview is important. But if they are largely being interviewed by White men who perhaps have little in common with them, it remains difficult to break through the glass ceiling. As Le Batard and others have pointed out, we tend to hire people like us.
Football, from Pop Warner through the NFL, needs to create more opportunities for people of color and women to participate and provide cultural competency training to its executive leadership, players, coaches, referees, and fans from all backgrounds. This includes not merely embracing diversity in name but providing extensive opportunities for people of different races, cultures, genders, etc. to work together and learn from one another, and to learn more about the history of race and sport in America. There is no reason, for example, that a former NFL safety and prominent NBC studio analyst should suggest Kaepernick, who is biracial, does not have the right to speak out on Black oppression because he is not Black. Rodney Harrison’s ahistorical gaffe is something the league can help redress through cultural competency training and community building.
The league must expand such training to include the audience by creating meaningful programming that highlights the rich races, ethnicities, and cultures that participate in the game on and off the field. It is not enough to show Latino peoples in commercials during Hispanic Heritage Month, for example. We must learn Latino players’ stories. Why do such players choose professional football; how many play? How is the sport received in their communities and homes, for example? How many Latino fans devour the sport, and why? What barriers may hold them back from fully participating in and/or enjoying the game? These spotlights allow fans to connect with the athletes on a personal level and to understand the rich diversity within races, genders, cultures, and experiences, not merely among them. It also allows for sport to help create a more level playing field, which many continue to imagine it to be.
Sarah K. Fields
This is a long list and would result in my being fired by the owners because my priority would not be maximizing profit. I’d start by changing the rules around tackling to make any blow to the head a personal foul and require teams to use the rugby wrap-style tackle. In rugby you tackle with your shoulder between the shoulder and the knees and you must wrap your arms around the ball carrier. Your head goes to the side of the body.
I would also work with the NFLPA and guarantee the players’ contracts like they are in baseball and basketball. I think that guaranteed contracts would incentivize teams to keep players healthy over the long term. To that end, I would change the CBA so that doctors and athletic trainers were paid by the NFLPA and not the teams (although the teams would have to contribute to that fund of money), so that the doctors and trainers could not be pressured in the same ways to keep players in the game.
In fact, I’d try to share the wealth of the NFL as much as possible for those who work to make the product. I would ban unpaid internships. I would hire the referees full-time so that none of them had to hold a second job during the off-season. Teams who wanted to keep cheerleaders would have to hire them as full time employees.
To promote the partnerships between cities and teams, I would allow cities or collectives to purchase teams. And, my last big initiative would be to require that owners (either individually or collectively) pay for stadiums and stadium upgrades rather than passing along the costs to the cities and the taxpayers.
Then I’d take my golden parachute and go see if I could fix FIFA.
Daniel A. Nathan
First, I would decrease the Commissioner’s authority and appoint someone else to be the Czar of Discipline and Punishment. I would also form a blue-ribbon committee and task it with “convincing” (read: forcing, if necessary) Washington owner Daniel Snyder to change his team’s shameful name and logo. Additionally, I would stop the protocol of having teams use different sets of balls during the game. One set of balls for both teams will do. Perhaps most importantly, I would start the process of being brutally honest—with players and fans—about the inherent neurological risks and dangers of playing this game. In March, the New York Times reported that, for years, the NFL had been less than rigorous and truthful about the danger of head injuries. If I were Commissioner, that would stop. Finally, I would eliminate the exhibition season or shorten it to one game. Few fans and fewer players and coaches truly like these games and the risk of injury is too great. As for the lost revenue, well, perhaps I wouldn’t be a great NFL Commissioner.
Thomas P. Oates
I would immediately suspend play until the game can be redesigned to ensure a reasonable standard of safety for players. Of course, this is one of many reasons why I will never be invited to be the NFL Commissioner.
Resign immediately before the owners canned me—make it one of those “you can’t fire me because I quit” sort of situations.
Seriously, the way the NFL is set up the Commissioner can only be as benevolent as the owners permit. But it is possible for Commissioners to be more than Goodel-esque empty suits. Adam Silver, for instance, has done some interesting things that both serve the NBA’s corporate interests and intermittently sprinkle a bit of magnanimity and intelligence into sports.
Kate Aguilar is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at the University of Connecticut. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Sarah K. Fields is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communications and Associate Dean for Student Success for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Colorado, Denver. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Daniel A. Nathan is a Professor and the Chair of the Department of American Studies at Skidmore College. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Thomas P. Oates is an Assistant Professor of American Studies at the University of Iowa. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Travis Vogan is an Assistant Professor of American Studies at the University of Iowa. he can be reached at email@example.com.