NFL: Last sports bastion of white, male conservatives

By Neal Gabler
May 30, 2014

New York Giants kicker Lawrence Tynes kicks the opening kick-off to start the first regular season game in the Giants new stadium against the Carolina Panthers in their NFL football game in East RutherfordBy almost any measure — TV ratings, the value of franchises, overall revenue, polls — the National Football League is by far both the most popular and successful professional sports league in America. A veritable juggernaut. Nothing seems to damage that popularity — not widely reported homophobia or the growing awareness of the dangers of head injuries or the accusations leveled in a lawsuit filed last week by 500 former players that they were pumped up with painkillers and sent back onto the field after being injured.

Why does the NFL have such a tenacious hold on the national consciousness — particularly that of white males, the primary fans of professional sports? It might be that the NFL, in both its high points and its low ones, encapsulates the prevailing white male conservative ethos of modern America better than any other league. The triumph of the NFL is a tribute to the triumph of American conservatism.

The Baltimore Ravens Chris Carr (25) fumbles the opening kickoff as he is hit by the New England Patriots Matt Slater (bottom) in the first quarter of their NFL football game in FoxboroughThe popularity of a sport is, to a large extent, a function of how well it expresses the zeitgeist — at least the male zeitgeist. For more than a century, baseball was America’s national pastime. It was pastoral — born in the 19th century, played on expansive greenswards, with  a leisurely pace and a deliberate strategy. All of which was a large part of its appeal in a rapidly modernizing society that surrendered those rural values grudgingly.

Basketball was born in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1891 but the professional National Basketball Association arose in the postwar era as an urban game — fluid, loose and improvisational like jazz, not to mention now predominantly black.

Both baseball and basketball centralize the individual: baseball with the pitcher and batter squaring off mano-a-mano; basketball with the soloist departing from the ensemble to shoot or dunk. As a result, Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association are both star leagues in which the players sometimes are as big as the game itself.

Football is another thing entirely. It is America’s corporate sport, rising in our industrial heartland. The basis of football is its machinery — 11 individuals subjugating themselves to the greater good of the team. They are effectively cogs, and with their heads encased in helmets, they are faceless in a way that baseball players and basketball players are not. In the case of the  linemen, they are not only faceless; they are pretty much nameless as well.

There is a reason that the NFL began taking hold in the 1950s — a period of conformity embodied by the term “organization man.” Football players are the ultimate organization men, and their sport is the sport of the corporate age.

Still, in a nation as mythically individualistic as ours likes to think it is, it took a while for football to wrest the “national pastime” mantle from baseball. That it finally succeeded is a testament to how much the United States changed in the last half of the 20th century — and how much the NFL played into those changes.

Seattle Seahawks Jordan Babineaux recovers a Green Bay Packers fumbleIt isn’t a coincidence that the rise of the National Football League mirrored the rise of American conservatism. In almost every way, the NFL was the league of the well-off, conservative white male.

A recent Experian Simmons study shows that this is true demographically. Of people who identified themselves as part of the NFL fan base 83 percent were white, 64 percent  were male, 51 percent were 45 years or older, only 32 percent made less than $60,000 a year, and, to finish the point, registered Republicans were 21 percent more likely to be NFL fans than registered Democrats. Another factoid: NFL fans were 59 percent more likely than the average American to have played golf in the last year. You think the NFL is a lunch-bucket league? Not unless the lunch bucket is from Hermes.

But football’s appeal is more than demographics. The numbers reflect the values of white conservative males. No professional sport looks more overtly macho than the NFL, and none appears to take greater delight in violence — not even the National Hockey League, which has gone to great lengths to curb fisticuffs.  The Michael Sam draft story revealed that none may be more homophobic. Where the National Basketball Association enthusiastically embraced Jason Collins when he announced he was gay, former Vikings punter Chris Kluwe has claimed that that he was released for advocating gay marriage and that his position coach made homophobic slurs.  Then are the numerous player tweets against gays, as well as Miami Dolphin lineman and team captain Richie Incognito’s gay taunts against former teammate Jonathan Martin.

But the league’s appeal to entrenched conservative values goes deeper still — to the heart of the relationship between labor and capital. No other professional league seems to exhibit the indifference, even contempt, to its own players that the NFL does to its athletes — which is why the former players have filed their suit. The record of concussions and the use of painkillers demonstrate that to the NFL — and many of its fans — players are essentially expendable, interchangeable, to be used up and then discarded. The fact that football players have never established a powerful union, as baseball and basketball players have, only shows how much those players have drunk the league’s Kool Aid. The career of the average NFL player lasts scarcely three years, yet it is the only professional league that doesn’t have guaranteed contracts.

Still, the game’s soaring popularity may actually signal the potential waning of those values rather than their power. Just as baseball embedded itself into the national psyche because it captured a sense of the country and then hung on because it represented a pastoral oasis in a frightening new industrializing world, football embedded itself into the national psyche because it captured Ronald Reagan’s America, and it may be thriving among its core fans because it is a last redoubt of white male values now being threatened by changing national demographics and a more tolerant mindset.

It is hard to call a league as popular as the NFL an anachronism. But it just may be a place where rich old angry white men can enjoy their world on Sunday — even if that world may be crumbling around them.

 

PHOTO (TOP): New York Giants kicker Lawrence Tynes (C) kicks the opening kick-off to start the first regular season game in the Giants new stadium against the Carolina Panthers in their NFL football game in East Rutherford, New Jersey, September 12, 2010. REUTERS/Gary Hershorn

PHOTO (INSERT 1): The Baltimore Ravens Chris Carr (25) fumbles the opening kickoff as he is hit by the New England Patriots Matt Slater (bottom) in the first quarter of their NFL football game in Foxborough, Massachusetts, October 4, 2009. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

PHOTO (INSERT): Seattle Seahawks Jordan Babineaux (27) recovers a Green Bay Packers fumble on the opening kickoff in the first quarter of their NFC Divisional NFL playoff football game in Green Bay, Wisconsin, January 12, 2008. REUTERS/John Gress

61 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

Lets see, come up with a trendy ‘hotbutton’ claim then twist the facts to support it. ‘Journalism’ at it’s finest.

Posted by TBlakely | Report as abusive

The race and gender breakdown for the NFL fan base in the linked report doesn’t look much different than breakdowns for other sports. The political breakdown is 41% Republican and 38% Democrat which is certainly within the margin of error. And, again, without comparisons to other sports, the writer’s claim that football’s popularity owes to “Reagan conservatism” is a textbook example of taking statistics out of context to support the point the writer wants to make: “I don’t like conservatism or the NFL.”

Posted by MikeyInHouston | Report as abusive

What a bunch of tendentious crap. This is like something a second year grad student in political science would come up with after a particularly drunken weekend. Is this going to be in your thesis Mr. Gabler?

Posted by Cwell | Report as abusive

Sigh…ten minutes of my life I will never get back.

Posted by Southpaw0609 | Report as abusive

I am not sure if Mr. Gabler has ever watched football, but his left-wing rant shows a clear lack of understanding of why people watch football more than other sports.

1) Football is actually the closest to socialism. Between revenue sharing, a collective television deal, the salary cap, and the NFL Draft, the league obsesses over competitive balance. On “any given Sunday,” any team can win. Teams can go from worst to first and every year new teams make the playoffs. The gap between the haves and have nots is constantly being narrowed.

Baseball is raw capitalism. Teams have their own regional television deals, and it is survival of the fittest. New York has a distinct advantage over Kansas City. A player on the Royals making one million can be paid $20 million by the Yankees. This is why the Yankees can win the World Series every year while small market clubs start the year knowing they have no chance. This causes many fans to tune out as the gap between haves and have nots widens.

2) Football is only 16 games. Basketball and hockey are 82 games, baseball 162 games. To watch every game in the other sports means spending no time with family unless they watch as well. Football was only Sundays and Monday nights, with the addition of Thursday nights a source of controversy. Baseball is always. Many fans of baseball, hockey and basketball ignore the regular season and wait for the playoffs.

3) Baseball is a turnstyle sport. It is meant to be enjoyed at the ballpark. On tv, it is incredibly boring to watch. Football is meant for tv. To stay home and watch tv is cheaper than going to a game, which helps blue collar families who can no longer afford the expensive price of tickets, parking, hot dogs and beverages.

Gabler is as wrong as wrong can be. Since he is a leftist, he will just say his right, declare the matter settled, and move on to discussing the next topic he knows nothing about.

eric @ the Tygrrrr Express

Posted by blacktygrrrr | Report as abusive

Your statement “The career of the average NFL player lasts scarcely three years, yet it is the only professional league that doesn’t have guaranteed contracts” seems out of place. Shouldn’t the point be more like “Because the career of the average NFL player lasts scarcely 3 years, it is the only professional league that doesn’t have guaranteed contracts. Why would NFL teams want to pay players who are no longer able to contribute to active rosters? Of all the leagues, the NFL has by far the greatest motivation to avoid guaranteed contracts.

Posted by HelenaEngineer | Report as abusive

Football actually “rose” in the Ivy League, not the heartland, and certainly not the industrial heartland where no one had the leisure time for football practice.

Until the 1950s, when the Ivy League de-emphasized football by dropping athletic scholarships, there were at least 2, and sometimes 3 or 4 Ivy League schools in the college Top 10 every year.

But don’t let facts get in the way of a good race-gender-class tale!

Posted by jimbob22 | Report as abusive

As a “rich old angry white man”, I don’t know many people who fancy crowding into any building with 100,000 other people, regardless of the sport. Today’s wealthy are increasingly seeking personalized experiences, exotic travel, and convenience; they don’t have time to follow the local sports team every week or fight big crowds. Personally I watch and participate in tennis, golf, skiing, Formula 1 (really only the Monte Carlo Grand Prix) and horses (the lattermost being a diversion for my wife and daughters). These involve luxury travel, have small crowds, allow me to get to know the players personally, and generally are better for conducting business in private. Maybe the author should consult a few “rich old angry white men” before using dubious statistics to assert opinions on our preferences.

Posted by RichAngryMan | Report as abusive

Gabler shows how easy it is to manipulate data to arrive at a preconceived result. He does it in this instance by relying on percentages, ignoring total numbers. He makes it sound like the NFL fan base is almost all white males, while other groups, like blacks, prefer other sports. But let’s look at the total numbers.

The NFC championship game this year was watched by 55.9 million viewers. The survey Gabler uses says that 9.5% of NFL fans are black. If they watched in that proportion, then than 5.3 million blacks watched that game.

The NBA Eastern Conference Finals averaged about 7.2 million total viewers. Unless one assumes that 3/4 of those viewers were black — an absurdity — more blacks watched the NFL than watched the NBA. The NFL’s popularity is not based on white conservatives — it is based on the fact that every group watches it more than any other sport.

Posted by woocane | Report as abusive

Wow. As vapid as it is hostile. Insane.

Posted by dddddddddddddd | Report as abusive

If Mr. Gabler is going to write something like this about the NFL, I wonder what he would have to say about the growing popularity of “soccer” (a.k.a. football) in the United States?

Posted by olihist | Report as abusive