NFL: Last sports bastion of white, male conservatives
By 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 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.
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