In the past weeks (read: years), story after story of NFL players are hitting the spotlight. Horrible life choices, criminal behavior, and lack of self-control are making the headlines. Mixed in there, certainly, are some players/teams doing charitable work, or getting in trouble for wearing a shirt that says “Jesus” on it. In some cases, it seems there’s even a decent man among them. A few men who deserve to be reformed in prison shouldn’t damn the entire enterprise, nor should a few good guys/moments redeem it.
But all of the speculation and conversation should demand we take a serious look at how and why we support the NFL as an organization, how we hold those involved accountable, and what we sacrifice in order to be entertained.
As Steve Almond writes in his book, “Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto”, if the NFL were being honest about the risks to new players, as they are drafted they would be required to sign a statement that reads:
“I, ________, the undersigned, am aware that the average age of death of an NFL player is, according to the Players Union, up to two decades shorter than normal life expectancy. Furthermore, I recognize that playing in the League, even in the absence of formally diagnosed concussions, may cause brain damage leading to the loss of cognitive function, depression, disorientation, and suicidal ideation.”
Even the NFL is finally conceding that around 1/3 of it’s players will experience brain trauma. (NFL says it’s probably lower, brain people say it’s probably higher.) But even if supporting the NFL didn’t make us accomplices to such injury, what about the financial figures?
Almond shares, “In 1948, nearly 9/10 of the revenue earned by the NFL’s best team, the Philadelphia Eagles, came from ticket sales. The share from radio/TV rights was 3%. Hardcore fans kept the league afloat, the ones who braved stadiums so cold that players sat bundled in hay to keep warm on the sidelines. This season, the NFL will receive $5 BILLION in TV rights alone, nearly half its total revenue, and 3x more than MLB earns.”
So here we have one organization, the NFL, that makes over $10 BILLION dollars annually. Surely, they pour a lot of that good back into their communities, right? After all, we see promotional pictures of teams visiting the sick/elderly/children/etc. all the time. Unfortunately, things like this are happening only AFTER tax-payers from those cities have paid hundreds of millions of dollars to provide facilities for their local team to keep playing. And yes, you read that article right…..even after being largely funded BY those taxpayers, local franchises pay no taxes themselves.
Now football has done a lot of good for people. Giving people a place where they can use some of their strength and grit in a way our “tech-savvy” world doesn’t have many outlets for. Calling all ages to enjoy the passion of a body at play. The long distance throw/catch that seemed to be impossible. The dodging of defenders all the way down the field as the crowd stands and cheers. In a moment of remembering, Almond recounts, “Elway ran around like crazy until he spotted something nobody else did, a path to redemption where others saw only ruin. In the moment of greatest peril, he summoned poise. In the midst of entropy, he found order. We all want to find that magic within ourselves. And failing that, we want to watch as someone else does.”
My question to football fans is, how will we call for a change? There’s obviously something very good here. Something that taps into the heart of millions of fans. But somewhere along the line, we started pretending we didn’t notice the impact it was having on our culture. We cannot pretend anymore that the injuries aren’t happening…both on and off the field. Lives are being lost and broken. We cannot pretend anymore that the financial set up, with its’ heavy burden on cities already suffering with hungry and homeless, is right. How will we be voices for change, calling for the redemption of a sport we love?
In a recent interview with Mark Edmunson, author of “Why Football Matters“, he talked about viewing NFL players as “heroes”, and mentioned we have a severe lack of heroes in most realms of our world today. It’d be great if an NFL player did something truly heroic, like demanding some of the issues above were addressed (actually addressed, not simply glazed over as injuries have been for many years). But as a parent, it definitely made me think consciously about helping my daughters find “heroes” for their own lives. People who are helping the Kingdom of God to break through. People who are bringing justice, offering grace, building with love, and sharing the Hope of redemption in the dark corners of our world. My guess is, it won’t be someone on the astro-turf. Or, more painful to admit, on the ice…