Is the NFL a Hobbesian contract, with Roger Goodell as the Sovereign?

Roger Goodell. The man has made a name for himself as the commissioner of arguably the greatest sports league in the world, the NFL. Many people would say that he has done much to improve the safety of the game for the players. Other people would say that he is making a game that looks like football, but isn’t football. Me, I don’t care about any of that in this article. I’m concerned with how Hobbes-esque NFL has become, and how much power Roger Goodell has.

That man on top? That’s the sovereign. That is Roger Goodell in today’s NFL.

In his treatise the Leviathan, Hobbes speaks on covenants, social contracts, and the state of nature. According to Hobbes, the state of nature is a state of war where one is afraid for their life, and from this fear of death comes the need to make covenants with others to protect yourself from harm and possibly death. Some people would choose to break their covenants anytime it is advantageous to them, although Hobbes claims only a fool would do this, so there has to be a mechanism to enforce our covenants, and by Hobbes’ reasoning that mechanism is an absolute sovereign. The sovereign will either become sovereign by forceful acquisition, or by the people willingly submitting to the sovereign. The first method is called a commonwealth by acquisition, and the second is a commonwealth by institution.This sovereign will enforce covenants that are made “by the sword”, and his, or hers, rulings will be final and absolute. According to Hobbes, everyone who submits to the sovereign must by necessity give up some personal liberties, in order to ensure the safety of everyone in the covenant. These are the basics of Hobbes’ ideas in Leviathan. Sound slightly familiar? Let’s look at how this parallels today’s NFL now.

Today’s NFL matches much of the criteria for Hobbes’ social contract theory. Football is such a physical game you could say it’s state of nature is a state of war. You could look at the rules as a covenant of sorts,

The Sovereign doing his thing

as to what can be done in the game, and what can’t be done in the game, with all of the players agreeing to this covenant when they step onto the field. Roger Goodell became the “sovereign” through institution, by the owners of the various NFL teams voting and appointing Roger Goodell as commissioner. These “covenants” are enforced by referees during games, who act as Goodell’s representatives, with Goodell upholding the covenant of playing within the rules in extreme cases. Goodell’s rulings are regularly appealed by players, but usually upheld. The sovereign, Goodell, upholds the covenant of the rules between players by “the sword”, as Hobbes puts it, with the sword being his giving out suspensions and fines. So, as you can see, the NFL is very similar to Hobbes’  social contract and state of nature theories.

Now, you could argue that due to the NFL players union that the NFL is closer to a Lockeian social contract with it’s representative democracy and ability to somewhat dispute the sovereign along with the owners association serving alongside Goodell and having to approve his rule change proposals. I, however, would argue that since the owners only serve as advisers concerning fines and suspensions, and that since that is how the covenant of the rules are upheld, that Goodell is still an absolute sovereign in this regard. Also, the players, Goodell’s subjects in his sovereignty, ability to resist to is limited to strikes and being locked out by the league. That isn’t very Lockeian considering it doesn’t really stress the individual’s freedoms in the game. So, I would still argue that the NFL is a very Hobbesian system.

It would seem, based on everything above, that the NFL is most closely a model of Hobbes’ social contract theory of making covenants and having an absolute sovereign to enforce in the form of its rules and commissioner, Roger Goodell. Everything matches fairly closely, closely enough that I will conclude that yes, the NFL is a Hobbes style social contract theory with its commissioner Roger Goodell as the sovereign.

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