The problem with the NFL

Ordinarily, by this time of the year I'm vibrating like a boiling pot ready for the football season to start. This year ought to be especially exciting. My beloved Patriots are coming off their fifth, and arguably most exciting, Super Bowl win. I'm primed to avenge a narrow loss in the fantasy football championships. But something is different this year. The enthusiasm is dimmed. Putting mental energy toward football seems almost like a chore.

It's not that I don't enjoy the game. I love the strategic aspect of football, and the athleticism on display can border on the divine. Hell, I'll cop to being a sucker for some of the tribal elements of fandom -- I'm a Bostonian and proud of it. Nothing has really changed. There’s just one problem, and it’s a big one.

The problem is the NFL.

The National Football League is rotten to the core. The NFL is corrupt. It is racist. It is deadly. It is wholly and ruthlessly dedicated only to the further enrichment of 32 of the world’s wealthiest people, and whosoever must be maimed, marginalized, or mistreated in pursuit of that goal is just grist to the mill. As a fan -- someone who tunes in, occasionally buys shit, and sees innumerable GMC truck ads when launching ESPN's fantasy Gamecast -- I am, in whatever small way, complicit. I don’t like the way that feels.

These feelings have been flitting around in the old subconscious for years. The revelation of CTE was troubling. The league’s inconsistent approach to discipline for off-field issues, in particular domestic violence, was disconcerting. The subtle but unmistakable difference in public perception and treatment of black players versus white players was something I thought only needed to be addressed with jokes. These all seemed like small concerns, easily hand-waved, unrelated and hardly a small price to pay for a game that has brought me so much joy over the years.

Then Colin Kaepernick happened.

Kaepernick’s protest was not simply a morally courageous act to bring attention to the problem of police violence in America, although it was that. The firestorm that erupted around his protest has incinerated every vestige of the NFL’s claim to respectability. The lie at the heart of the thing has been laid bare for all to see. Forget “the NFL is family”; the NFL is a devourer of worlds.

Let’s start with this: the average NFL career is just over three years, and the average NFL earnings are just shy of four million dollars. We all know how averages work, yes? For every Tom Brady who plays for decades and stacks up a few hundred million simoleons, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of practice-squad scrubs who wash out with nothing to show but a couple grand in the bank and an opioid addiction. But it’s the Bradys that we see on TV each week. Ever heard of survivorship bias?

In other words, those “average” numbers that you’ve probably already heard are surely a massive overstatement of the median player’s longevity and lucre. The NFL is not a path to riches and to stardom, and that’s even if you get there in the first place. God only knows how many high school football players with pro-league dreams are discarded by the time the teams’ 53-man rosters are drawn up. That’s too depressing a number even to Google.

So most players don’t make the pros, and most of those who do wash out. They aren’t getting rich. But all those years of practice, of high school and college games, and of desperately trying to make the cut at the pro level still comes with a cost to them. CTE is pervasive; according to one study, 99% of NFL brains suffered from it, and other studies have suggested that playing high-school ball alone can be sufficient to damage the brain permanently.

It’s tempting to say that these are grown men making an informed choice to put themselves at risk, because if that's true then the culpability is all theirs. Except they’re not grown men. Even in their late teens and early 20s, with some amount of education, we’re asking these people to make far-reaching life decisions whose implications they cannot possibly comprehend. Not to mention that a pro prospect is surrounded by any number of people whose own incentives are to get the player to sign, sign, sign. Agents, publicists, even family members -- an NFL contract can be a meal ticket for more than just the one who signs on the line that is dotted.

Is playing football an informed choice? The risks of CTE have been known only for a few years now, and are still not well understood. Hell, forget “informed” -- is playing a choice at all? Promising players are often children when they begin to be funneled toward ever more competitive strata. I don’t want to overgeneralize about the upbringing of your typical football player, but I know from experience that it’s exceedingly hard to walk away from something into which you’ve invested so much of your life’s equity, especially if you feel an obligation to those closest to you to continue. Now imagine that, longshot or not, your only route to a better life appears to run through the NFL. Could you quit?

The NFL isn’t satisfied with feeding on these young men’s bodies, though. As Kaepernick’s example shows, the league also demands their minds. It’s worthwhile to remember what Kaepernick actually did: he knelt during the National Anthem. That’s all. He was quiet, and still, and had been doing the kneeling thing for quite a while before anybody noticed and asked him about it. When he was asked, he spoke clearly and directly about his reasons for doing so. And boy oh boy, did that make the (white) fans mad!

I don’t typically listen to sports talk radio, but occasionally at the gym I’ll tune into the Felger and Mazz simulcast. You bet I’ve heard no shortage of spittle-flecked tirades against Kaepernick from the (white) Boston fans, all of which revolve around the central theme that Kaepernick ought to shut his mouth and know his place. You see, when a (black) player earns a high-paying contract, may or may not justify his salary with his play, and then dares to disrespect the flag/troops/whatev with a stoic protest, why, that’s a slap in the face to the (white) fans! For some reason!

All this is why I realized that the NFL, not so much in any of its constituent parts but in toto, is racist as shit. This is an entity in which 32 mostly white owners profit from the labor and, in some cases, outright destruction of mostly black bodies, and by sleight of hand have convinced their customers, the fans, that it is the players who are deserving of our scorn. That it is the players who are ungrateful money-grubbers, who prioritize the glorification of their own massive egos above the success of the team. That they’ll do anything for a buck and screw you if you don’t like it. Yeah, it’s the players who do that! Not the owners.

It’s funny, though. Since this whole thing blew up, Colin Kaepernick has been unemployed. Never mind that he is young and healthy, with a trip to the Super Bowl on his resume. We tend to hear that he’s yet to be signed because of his skills, which have either declined or are not the right fit with today’s offenses, and while it may be true that Kaep has not progressed much since his breakout season, it’s also true that the following quarterbacks are currently signed to NFL teams:

  • Brock Osweiler
  • Blake Bortles
  • Geno Smith
  • Blaine Gabbert
  • Ryan Mallett
  • Mark Sanchez? Holy shit

We’ve heard a lot of mealy-mouthed words from a lot of mealy-mouthed owners that Kaepernick wouldn’t fit in their systems, or that he would be unwelcome by their fanbase, but whatever the excuses, it’s all bullshit. Kaepernick is unequivocally a better player than everyone on that list, plus many more. He is also a man who refuses to be ground up in the gears of the rapacious monster that is the National Football League. He won’t allow his identity to be subsumed by the massive business concern that is temporarily signing his checks. That is what the league cannot allow.

I suspect that some of these owners privately agree with the substance of Kaepernick’s protest, even (“police shouldn’t execute people” being a fairly self-evident proposition), but are simply afraid to upset the apple cart. Why would they want to disrupt the status quo? The status quo has made them billionaires.

To recap: the NFL is a money-sucking machine that aims to hoover every last dime from the fans into the pockets of the owners. Owners profit off the exploitation and sometime destruction of an essentially captive workforce, demanding conformity and loyalty to a false ideal of “The League” but abdicating responsibility for the players’ health and wellbeing, especially in retirement. They will pay for exceptional workers if they must, but thanks to the salary cap don’t really have to. Besides, those eye-popping topline contracts trick the fans into thinking that the players are all overpaid, spoiled babies even though their share of league revenue is actually unfairly small!

Besides which, when franchise values are increasing by double-digit percentages every year, owners couldn’t overpay if they tried. Shahid Khan has doubled his investment in less than six years, and he owns the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Jaguars, for god’s sake! A team that has averaged three wins a year since he bought them! We’re not going to let that gravy train derail on account of Colin Kaepernick, or the victims he speaks for.

What a fucking abomination the NFL is.

But, uh... let’s have fun out there this season.