If you have tuned into ESPN, read the news, listened to the radio, or have resided in any place other than the underside of a rock, you will surely have heard about the NFL this fall. And no–not for good reasons. The beginning of this season has been nothing short of a public relations disaster, filled with controversies, cover-ups and an overall let-down in the character and morality of those we are supposed to admire.
The face–or more accurately, the mask–of the NFL, Commissioner Roger Goodell, has come under a levy of fire for various incidents, and his mantra of “protecting the shield“. This ideology represents the core belief of today’s NFL as a corporate entity: defend a perpetrator, or a wrongdoing, or a scandal, in order to “protect” the brand. As a result, the ensuing firestorm created has been amplified by certain lowlights in particular.
Firstly, domestic violence has gone to the forefront of social issues; and recent incidents involving the NFL are certainly projecting this. Last offseason, star tailback for the Baltimore Ravens, Ray Rice, was caught on a casino surveillance tape, assaulting his then fiancée in a brutal fashion. He was suspended two games for this act. As Maureen Dowd observed in a New York Times editorial, that suspension was two games fewer than what would be given for a first drug offense. Moreover, other NFL players, Ray MacDonald, Greg Hardy and Jonathan Dwyer, had each been arrested for domestic abuse charges—with little to no consequences from the NFL.
If this controversy was not enough, then the Adrian Peterson situation conundrum solely adds to it. After being one of the most talented players to ever play in the NFL, a former league MVP, and 2012’s “feel-good” story in sports for overcoming a horrific knee injury—A.P. fell from grace. Once seen as a role model for determination and overall able-bodied athleticism, Peterson was arrested for child abuse this past September, placing yet another stain on the NFL and its front-man Goodell.
With these events established, it is important to recognize their impact on the current social atmosphere in America. Now, we know, football is important in America. But how important? Well it surely isn’t only an entertainment powerhouse, ruling television ratings for decades; it is also a means for channeling social trends and ideologies.
Angelo Bartlett Giamatti, a long-time scholar and former Commissioner of Major League Baseball, contemplated the role of the sports in public life, and the relevance of the spectator. In his analysis of the role of sports, Take Time for Paradise, Giamatti asserts that the spectator utilizes the player as a “surrogate”, in order for him/her to access their place of leisure. With this concept in mind, the overall impact of football to the zeitgeist of America, causes it to be one of today’s great forums for projecting the issues of the day.
From providing Breast Cancer Awareness, to “Play 60”, the NFL has used its popularity and the quasi-religious devotion of its fan base to provide awareness on various issues. On the contrary, when issues arise within the league, the fans are the ones who stand up against these wrongdoings. The collective anger amongst fans this season against their aforementioned heroes and the organization they represent has promoted this theory.
Sports in its grandiose nature and wide appeal, has the power to provoke debate, gain understanding and bring attention to the day’s greatest issues. As the most universal American cultural entity, football encompasses all of the flaws of society. When the athletes fall, American society rolls-up-its-sleeves to address it.
Hence, “protecting the shield” should not be a method to maintain profit; understanding, and combatting the issues that are pertinent within the NFL should be. While this fall has been dark and dreary for the NFL, there certainly is much to learn from these unfortunate events. So let us “play ball”.