DAVID NIOSE FOR BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT
It has taken years, but I’ve finally come to terms with one of the most glaring inconsistencies in my own life. Though I hold myself out as a proud progressive, cognitive dissonance has allowed me to enjoy an activity that, in all honesty, directly conflicts with my core beliefs and values. After justifying and rationalizing this activity year after year, knowing deep down inside that it is indefensible, I’m finally ready to confront it:
I can no longer be a fan of the National Football League.
This decision results from an uncomfortable truth that has become increasingly undeniable to me: The NFL, because of the values it fosters on such a grand scale, is arguably the most influential reactionary force in the United States today.
If this sounds like an exaggeration, consider the facts. The NFL’s appeal and cultural influence are vast, with loyal followers, young and old, all over the country who willingly devote large amounts of time and attention to it. Yet the values it propagates are antithetical to a progressive life stance. Militarism, nationalism, corporatism, excessive consumption, and even conservative religion and anti-intellectualism -- all are nurtured, directly or indirectly, with a sprinkling of sexism for good measure, by the league and its activities.
This was not an easy truth for me to face. I’ve followed the NFL longer than I’ve called myself a progressive, since the glory days of Roger Staubach and Terry Bradshaw. And as a New Englander, I suffered decades of disappointment as a Patriots fan before watching the team become a dynasty in the Belichick-Brady era. The Pats just won their fifth Super Bowl, but I’ve come to realize that the NFL, overtly and covertly, stands firmly opposed to my own progressive values. I’m walking away, knowing without a doubt I’m doing the right thing.
Even as a fan for many years, I never felt entirely comfortable with the league’s eagerness to incorporate militarism into its events. I’ve never needed or wanted fighter jet flyovers, color guards or other military elements to enjoy a football game. Since September 11, 2001, however, pre-game and halftime activities are increasingly centered around the armed forces, molding the public mindset -- especially young minds -- to accept militarism as normal and quintessentially American. Little wonder that ads for military recruitment are commonplace during NFL games.
If progressives find militarism troubling, we also have a distaste for its close cousin, nationalism. The hyper-patriotism that permeates the NFL is apparent not only through its exaltation of the military, but more concretely via its treatment of Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who expressed peaceful dissent by sitting out the national anthem to protest the mistreatment of African Americans. Now a free agent, as of this writing, Kaepernick remains unsigned despite having the talent and credentials (he took the 49ers to the Super Bowl in 2013) that would make him a starter on many rosters. All indications suggest he’s been blackballed.
This treatment of Kaepernick is disappointing, but it should come as no surprise. NFL football is not a game, but a business constructed on an ultraconservative foundation. The NFL is totally reliant on corporate money for its lifeblood, selling as entertainment a game with two teams clashing in a violent, strategic battle on the gridiron, accompanied by regular grandiose displays of patriotism. With enormous contracts for the talented players, who are on the payroll of the aristocratic owners sitting in luxury boxes above the loyal masses, elitism is a defining characteristic.
NFL football may seem like a showcase for athletic talent, but we should remember that it serves primarily as a showcase for corporate products and services. Selling corporate America’s products is the reason the NFL exists, at least in the form we see today. NFL fans absorb a steady diet of advertising for beer, cars and trucks, financial services, sodas and snacks, fast food restaurants and more beer.
The major networks pay upwards of $3 billion annually to broadcast NFL games, meaning, of course, that the ad revenues they generate through their broadcasts far exceed that figure. Corporate America craves a passive audience willing to absorb its message, and that’s what the NFL provides. That message is to drink some beer, have some chips, go out and borrow some money to buy a new truck, and on the way home, stop at a drive-thru to get yourself and your kids some burgers and fries. Athleticism, indeed.
With its underlying conservative values, there is little tolerance for a dissenter like Kaepernick in the cultural DNA of the NFL. The league has little problem with players who abuse women, but a modest and legal gesture of political dissent is met with harsh ostracism. Prevailing sentiment can be seen through statements such as those of Boomer Esiason, a former quarterback who’s now a commentator for CBS Sports. Saying he was “disgusted,” Esiason called Kaepernick’s actions “disgraceful.” He added: “I would cut him.”
Thus, what we see with the NFL is a confluence of factors -- men with unique athletic abilities, a violent sport, wealthy owners, major corporations pursuing their interests, and a public that craves entertainment and willingly absorbs the messaging that accompanies the game -- that create an extremely powerful vehicle for shaping a culture that accepts corporatism and its underlying values. As we consider the sorry state of American society today, it can’t be a coincidence that the undesirable values fostered by the NFL are so prevalent in the overall culture, from our willingness to go to war to our tolerance of wealth disparity and obedient submission to corporate power.
Indeed, while the NFL has no official political position, the sympathies it nurtures would make Ayn Rand proud. “I don’t believe in safety nets,” former Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway once quipped. “I believe we’re given the opportunity to succeed or not succeed…. But I think my philosophy is, when given the opportunity, to go take advantage of that.”
Such are the core principles of a rich, strong, healthy, white, retired NFL quarterback. I succeeded, so why can’t you? As we hear Esiason rant against Kaepernick and watch others among the NFL elite, such as the Patriots power trio of Robert Kraft, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, rubbing elbows with Donald Trump, the league’s defining class and dominant philosophy come into focus.
It’s important to understand that the NFL’s influence reaches deep into the heart of America, with football now a major institution in many communities, from small towns to major universities. Foreign students are baffled at the sports obsession in US schools, and football, of course, is most often the centerpiece of school sports programs.
And if you play football in the Bible belt, which is a breeding ground for NFL and Division 1 college players, you probably went to a school that has active members of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, even among coaching staff. Many activist Christian coaches see proselytizing and saving young souls as an important part of their job. As legal director of the American Humanist Association, I’ve seen numerous instances of public school coaches promoting Christianity, unconstitutionally praying with students and even baptizing players. This is the environment in much of the NFL’s talent pool at the grassroots level, and it is not a welcoming place for religious minorities and nonbelievers.
To my fellow progressives who will remain loyal NFL fans (and there are many of you), I understand that we all have guilty pleasures. As I’ve grappled with being an NFL fan in recent years, becoming increasingly mindful of my own cognitive dissonance, I appreciate that some of you have even tried to help me rationalize it. One colleague whom I respect very much suggested that NFL football can be seen as a modern means of expressing our primal aggressive tendencies, an alternative to war and violent confrontation. I tried to accept that explanation, until I eventually realized that there is nothing truly civilized about the reactionary values promoted by the league.
So enjoy it if you must, but I encourage progressives to consider shedding the sedentary life of an NFL fan and the psychological conflict that necessarily accompanies it. This season, when asked if I’m ready for some football, the answer will be no.
David Niose is legal director of the Appignani Humanist Legal Center, immediate past president of the American Humanist Association, and author of Fighting Back the Right. Follow him on Twitter: @ahadave