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The NFL: The Great American Synecdoche

I love football like dogs love licking their balls. My favorite team is the Oakland Raiders, and I’ve loved football this whole time in spite of how horrible they’ve been. They’re finally decent, and sit atop their conference’s wild card standings for playoff contention. Those close to me already find me unbearable in light of this development. American football is amongst the rawest gladiatorial carnage you can see outside a ring or an octagon, and unlike the ring or the octagon, the swarms of large men charging toward each other resemble more a battlefield than a bar fight. Yet the carnage is dwarfed by the cunning integral to the game, which since the early 60s and the coming of the American Football League has progressed at a pace suggestive of obedience to Moore’s Law.

The one thing, however, that I for certain love more than football are my values, which lean toward secular-humanist socialism possibly more communist than capitalist. And from this perspective, the truth about American football is obvious: it sucks.

Football, in its present incarnation, has become a parable of American corruption and American consumerism. With corporate personhood and the buying of elections we now see, the two are functionally one and the same. Certainly, there are no small number of military contracting firms that have taken the taxpayers for quite the ride time and time again, but this is all somewhat behind-the-curtain and between-the-lines. Professional football, a laughable term in the context of the exclusion of college athletes and so here meant to include college football as well, is an ongoing festival of U.S. civic corruption that occurs out in the open.

Groundbreaking is continuously ongoing for taxpayer-financed stadiums for professional and college teams. If it seems any less so in college than in the pros, then it’s because they have an extra hundred mil a piece to spare that they don’t have to spend on their student athletes. Organizations that make hundreds of millions of dollars while the organizing body they maintain makes and disperses billions back to them can’t find the dough to put up for a stadium every few decades. And continuously, despite frequent public opposition, these stadium deals get passed, and when they are quashed and a team moves, disenchanted fans blame it on their bankrupt cities and “politics” instead of the flush-with-cash teams and the tax-exempt leagues, supposed “non-profits” that pay their heads tens of millions a year.

The ongoing spectacles of tributes to the military at sporting events, complete with fighter jets flying over and fifty-thousand-square-foot flags unfurled across the field, have been revealed to be propaganda, farce conceived and arranged for by the Department of Defense. The teams have been paid handsomely for helping put on the show. In terms of spectacle, even the cheerleaders are getting fucked, with poverty wages and demeaning and sexist treatment by their employers. Football is increasingly not something Americans get out to have fun doing, but something they sit down to be placated watching. I gave up some years ago on trying to summon any number of people to actually go out and throw the pigskin around on the weekend–before the football is on t.v.–when I got a bunch of answers to the negative because the sorts that go out and play football instead of basketball where I live all preferred getting their fantasy football teams together for the upcoming games.

American activism, too, has been dragged by the short-hairs into football with the custom of pink-washing: pink crap all over the field, pink jerseys, pink hats, pink footballs, pink terrible towels, pink pigeons taking pink shits on those in attendance, all in reality giving minuscule percentages to breast cancer research, subverting true activism with its in-bred dinner party cousin and then just stealing all the money from the in-bred cousin anyway. The NFL gives a portion of their royalties from the proceeds, which don’t include the proceeds made by the “manufacturers” or “retailers” of the merchandise (also known as the NFL and the NFL Shop, as well as other outlets that sell league merchandise), who give not a cent. The sliver left over goes to the Avon Breast Cancer Crusade. If it were a bigger farce they’d legally have to call it Food-for-Oil.

In terms of the operations of the NFL itself, the scandals involving the New England Patriots have the same reek of corruption to them as the reek coming off of the corpse of American democracy, as six years of documented signal-stealing were swept under the rug with fines, and their evidence destroyed, while the team then went on to the first perfect sixteen-game regular season ever (and ultimately a Super Bowl loss) under the command of a head coach who saw no suspension for his involvement. In the past year, their reputation has again come under fire as they are embroiled in yet another cheating controversy, and they’ve responded to the investigation and subsequent penalties with the ferocity and propaganda of a high-level political campaign (their website “The Wells Report in Context,” is a magnum opus of bullshit artistry). Their efforts had seemingly failed when U.S. courts rode in to the rescue and vacated the suspension of Tom Brady for some vague reason having to do with the Commissioner of the NFL, Roger Goodell, hearing both his initial case for the rule-breaking and then hearing the appeal where he upheld the full four-game suspension, something which has been standard for suspended players in recent years (short of not paring down a suspension on appeal, but Brady’s rule-breaking was considered more egregious than the standard sort of steroid or misconduct suspensions that are typically seen).

The reason for this favoritism, both within the NFL and then within the courts when the NFL finally put its foot down, is the influence of Robert Kraft, owner of the Patriots. Kraft not only owns the Patriots and the conglomerate that goes by his last name, he was also on the board of directors of Viacom until this August, whose sister firm, CBS Corporation, carries games played by teams in the NFL’s American Football Conference (half of the league, including the Patriots). Naturally, CBS routinely signs new, record-breaking deals with the NFL to carry games and, naturally, Kraft’s New England Patriots are seen an inordinate amount of the time in markets where there isn’t a local game on at the same time. I need not expound to you here as to how these business entanglements can and do make Robert Kraft an important person to those in the United States government, and so when the NFL finally got tired of his cheating ways, the courts bailed him out.

The NFL is allowed to get away with many things that would otherwise be made illegal by interstate commerce laws and other local commerce laws by virtue of their antitrust exemption (translation: they are a monopoly legally ordained by the United States government), made necessary when the National Football League and American Football League merged in 1970. As such, time and time again they are able to sidestep legal issues that would doom other entities; indeed, their very existence is such a dooming legal issue neatly sidestepped by antitrust exemption.

Now, however, there is a sudden death knell in sight looming over the game of football, not a threat just to the NFL and the NCAA, but to any outfit playing tackle football at any level: they don’t give a single, solitary shit about their players. It’s stunning, really, that the NCAA, for instance, has athletes earning tens of millions of dollars for their colleges who then go to bed hungry after earning their colleges those millions. Strict rules defining “amateurism” have come to bar even the buying of meals for these people in exchange for an appearance in order to maintain this amateurism, but the reality of course is that the rules have not really come to prevent the wining, dining, and car-buying that colleges have used for decades to lure athletes to their schools. They still do, and they still get caught sometimes, but the true objective has been achieved: avoidance of salaries to student athletes that, by all rights, should be upwards of tens of millions for the highest-achieving of those athletes. By every measure, they are doing something functionally identical to what their “professional” counterparts do for those sums, and by every measure, they are desperately in need of such funds, of any funds, in a system where there is no long-term care for athletes who suffer catastrophic injuries (in the last couple of years, former players and the families of former players sued the NFL into setting up a meager fund for ex-athletes, but even then, only for those named in the suit). The student athletes are “paid” with bullshit educations they barely need to attend to graduate from or can just have teachers openly do their work for them because everybody involved already knows why the athletes are there.

But, even this level of just-not-giving-a-shit about the people who make your money for you is dwarfed by how football is currently contributing to a dwindling talent pool through their refusal to reform, in any significant way, a game that parents are increasingly refusing to let their children play. My parents didn’t let me play tackle football. I don’t plan on letting my kids play tackle football. The National Hockey League is overdue for a player health scandal, and perhaps if it’s sufficient enough to threaten the existence of the less-robust hockey institutions then college and professional football will take note. Shining a light on the similar dangers in hockey to the light that’s been cast on football’s problems could significantly threaten the weaker National Hockey League both financially and existentially. Professional and college football have seen the rash of evidence that football damages your brain severely, every bit as much so as pugilism, and have not adjusted accordingly. Fittingly, the market forces that made them into unconscionably-large monoliths that are so often above the rules will threaten to ruin them.

It’s a classic tale of American greed. To make a dollar today, they will gladly make none ever again in a few mere decades, and as always it involves fucking the workers as much as humanly possible. At every turn, it’s an analogy for America in modernity, literally hitting itself in the head over and over again until at last brain damage sets it and it can’t order itself to keep doing it. The Great American Synecdoche, a piece of the whole that represents the whole. How many indistinct pieces of our culture can speak to the whole before we begin to realize that we are no longer the sum of our parts?