By Paul Todaro
There is no doubt that the National Football League (NFL) represents one of the largest and most profitable, capitalistic, and hierarchical sports conglomerates in the 21st century. Upon hiring NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in 2006, the league’s total revenue that year was approximately $6 billion. Almost 12 years later, annual revenues for 2018 are projected to be between $14 and $15 billion. The NFL is made up of 32 teams, with all but one, the Green Bay Packers, privately owned. Collectively, the 32 teams are worth about as much as every Major League Baseball (MLB) and National Basketball Association (NBA) team combined, with a total cumulative worth of about $74.8 billion. Some of the NFL team owners include corporate CEOs, like Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who owns the Seattle Seahawks, the Seattle Sounders FC, and the Portland Trailblazers. Allen is ranked by Forbes Magazine as the 46th richest person in the world, with an estimated net-worth of $20.7 billion. The second wealthiest owner and the first ethnic minority to own an NFL team, Shahid Khan, owns the Jacksonville Jaguars and has an estimated net-worth of $8.7 billion (Huddleston Jr., 2017). Of all the owners in the league, only two are not billionaires, and each is worth about $500 million: Art Rooney II of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the son-and-mother duo, Mark and Carol Davis, who inherited the Oakland Raiders. The total net-worth of all the owners combined is $117.3 billion, over $6 billion more than the entire GDP of the country of Kuwait and the next 141 countries (World Bank, 2017). The average net-worth of owners spread among each team is $3.78 billion. These numbers do not include the actual worth of each NFL team, but rather the net-worth of each owner individually.
In terms of gender diversity, there are only four female owners. Some became head of their organization through inheritance or as the wives of legitimate owners, while the others are listed in name only due to loopholes in the NFL Cross-Ownership Rule that do not allow for an owner to also own teams in competing leagues. Paul Allen, however, somehow maintains ownership of three professional sports teams, all from different sports (NFL, NBA, & MLS), without penalty from the NFL or any other entity. About 74% of the owners of the NFL teams, excluding Green Bay, came to power through inheritance, oil/gas money, or through manipulation of the real-estate market. All come from vast wealth, and most have been wealthy since their birth, indicating a significant socio-economic disconnect from the players and other behind-the-scenes employees. This wealth disparity has become especially apparent in the player protests (and subsequent backlash) regarding kneeling during the national anthem at the start of each game.
The NFL has grown culturally and economically, especially over the past ten years or so, with the hegemonic elite exploring further expansion across borders. NFL players are staples of communities across the nation, with fans sporting tattoos of team logos, donning expensive jerseys, and purchasing accessories from posters, to shoes, to license plate covers. For many cable providers, NFL REDZONE provides its own package, adding approximately ten dollars to each subscriber’s monthly bill. NFL signs, billboards, and TV advertisements are prominently featured across the U.S., and sponsors, such as Under Armour and Nike, heavily advertise the NFL while using the leagues’ logo on their merchandise or display.
On a global scale, there are regular-season NFL games held annually in London, with eight total since 2016. Mexico hosted its first ever NFL game this year, and there are talks of globalizing the NFL, with at least one team relocating to the U.K. in the near future. The profound success of the NFL franchise is almost entirely due to mass media exposure and profit incentives. The media have been wildly successful in creating the NFL into more than just a niche market. Almost every year, the Superbowl is the most watched TV broadcast in the world. According to Eyder Peralta of NPR, as of 2015, seven of the eight most-watched television broadcasts in the history of TV were Superbowls. The seventh out of eight was the M.A.S.H. finale on CBS in 1983 (Peralta, 2015). This provides advertisers with an audience of well over 100 million consumers eagerly waiting to hear about why Bud Light is America’s favorite beer. During the 2017 Superbowl LI, advertisers paid a higher average price per 30-second ad than ever before, at $5 million a pop.
With this massive viewership, the NFL has become extremely powerful by weaving itself into America’s cultural fabric. In fact, “the league promotes itself with specific strategies that seek to capitalize on the league’s distinctive place within sport, but also in the broader terrain of U.S. culture” (Oates, 2016). There are no boundaries for the organization, and the NFL has turned its sights towards marketing to children. For instance, they have recently forged a partnership with the children’s TV network Nickelodeon, creating original content intended to “craft fandom among children” (Oates, 2016).
Regarding the NFL’s hegemonic values and representations of race, class, and gender roles, White men are in control of the league not just as owners, but as a majority of the coaches, general managers, assistant or other managers, league office staff, and as quarterbacks controlling the other ten guys on his side of the yard line. This white male domination among sports is not just an NFL issue insofar as it is an issue or bi-product of corporate-capitalization. As a league, the NFL is an amalgamation of community based franchises run by and for the hegemonic elite who promote the economic, social, and political interests and ideologies shared between them.
White Owners of Black Bodies
Hegemonic power and practices are even more prevalent when critically analyzing the annual NFL draft and everything that prospects go through during the process. NFL prospects undergo a series of measurements, interviews, physical tests of strength, speed, and reactive ability, and are constantly interrogated by coaches and scouts, media reporters, and the paparazzi hoping to dig up a story or draw an emotional response or action from the players. Most prospects are young black men who are constantly critiqued by older, wealthy, white men about their size, quickness, strength, with notes on the prospects such as, “(he) has a muscular upper body with a tight waste” (Oates, 2007). The physique of each prospect is examined as a exploitative commodity by potential NFL team buyers and partners who comment on players’ bodies, assigning letter grades on their height, weight, hand measurements, body mass, push-up count, max weight on a bench press, and 40-yard dash times. A former NFL general manager was quoted as saying, “It’s a livestock show, and it’s dehumanizing, but its necessary… If we’re going to pay a kid a lot of money to play football, we have a right to find out as much as we can. If we’re going to buy ‘em, we ought to see what we’re buying” (Oates, 2007). This statement is representative of the NFL as a whole and is extremely evident when a player, no matter his skill set, steps beyond his boundaries. The clearest contemporary illustration of player exploitation is the blackballing of Colin Kaepernick by the NFL for bringing awareness to issues of racial and social justice.
This dehumanizing practice also includes racial profiling, as there is evidence that coaches, scouts, and other reporters assess players differently according to race. For instance, black prospects have been tagged with descriptors reminiscent of those used by slave owners: “tremendous physical specimen;” “he carries just six percent body fat, leaving the rest of him solid as a rock.” While the worth of black players is predominantly based on physical shape, size, and muscle tone, white players are more often praised for their work ethic, intelligence, leadership qualities, or a combination of the three. An interesting study conducted in 2005 provided novice coaches with four photographs of both white and black people posing as athletes. They were also given stereotypical phrases that were widely used when defining an athlete, and then were “asked to rate the extent to which they believed that each factor contributed to the athlete’s success” (Mercurio & Filak, 2010, p. 61).
The study’s findings were unsettling, with coaches assigning the players with stereotypical statements based on the race that was “best suited” for the loaded language. “The researchers concluded that this finding was especially alarming because the photographs used were of people who were not involved in athletics and the people were only shown from the shoulders up” (Mercurio & Filak). There was no context around the hypothetical players, nor were there statistics of player speed, strength or reactive ability. What’s more, there were no known indicators of leadership or work ethic traits. Yet despite this lack of player knowledge, the coaches projected racial biases on who was athletic, strong, intelligent and capable of leading a group of men to victory simply based on the color of their faces. Through these findings, it is also apparent that even low-level coaches and scouts have adopted prejudices similar to their employers and predecessors: that blacks are athletic, and whites are intelligent.
As an organization, the NFL elite normalize racial biases as uncontested facts in an environment in which stereotypes determine the pecking order of power across the hierarchical tiers within each franchise. Take the quarterback (QB) position in football, for instance, which holds the most prominence and power within any team. QBs are usually the highest paid players of any football team, with contract durations that usually exceed most players. As the most valuable position in the league, QBs are also overwhelmingly white, with only about 21% of blacks as starting QBs. Black QBs have garnered more praise for their athletic ability than their football IQ or their role as a field general. For instance, the Carolina Panthers did not draft Cam Newton, number one overall in the 2011 draft, for his ability to read a defense or to call audibles based on analyzing the other side of the field. Rather, he was drafted for his size and strength as a huge, strong, physical man with speed, agility, and power with his 6’5”, 245-pound frame. Before Newton was drafted, he was subject to the same invasive inspection as every other NFL-hopeful, reminiscent of how whites analyzed a slave before purchasing them. He stood on a stage in nothing but his shorts, posed for a moment, while his height and weight were recorded among a sea of white faces who analyzed every physical attribute imaginable of his body. “The draft further domesticates blacks by positioning them as objects of the desiring gaze. In doing so, this way of seeing places black men in positions usually occupied by women – under the control of white men” (Oates, 2007).
The uncontested control of white men in the NFL is in stark contrast with most black players whose bodies don armor and engage in often-animalistic and violent behavior. Overwhelmingly, white males hold economic and political power while exploiting blacks as commodities for profit. In this game, players are gladiators on the largest mediated stages controlled by white elites at all tiers of franchise ownership. Although NFL players get paid sizable sums of money, their careers are drastically shorter than those of owners, managers, and CEOs. The longevity of tenure for a player by any organization can be quickly curtailed if the player is injured at any time during his employment. A poll done by the Wall Street Journal showed that as of 2016, the average NFL career for all players was under three years. Offensive linemen statistically stay in the league the longest on average for about three years and eight months, while wide receivers (overwhelmingly African-American) have the shortest careers on average at about two and a-quarter-years (cited in Sports Illustrated Wire, 2016).
For long-time football fans, it is apparent that offensive lineman are primarily white men and their job is to read a defense and quickly determine who the right guy to block is based on their intelligence of the game. Defensive lineman, especially the good ones, are more often black players whose job is simply to dominate any player in his way on his quest to violently bring the QB to the ground or disrupt the play. On average, the longest tenured position is dominated by white men (offensive lineman), while defensive lineman are mainly black men who rely more on athletic ability and brute strength. Moreover, offensive linemen are in charge of protecting the most prized possessions of a team, the mostly white QBs. The players that retire young or are unemployed at a young age are usually lower-star caliber players who do not get paid nearly as much as someone like DeAndre Hopkins, pro-bowl receiver for the Houston Texans. Currently 25-years-old, Hopkins’ contract goes until the year 2023, and offers a total worth of $81 million with $36.5 million guaranteed. This is a luxury that the vast majority of the league’s players are not awarded, especially young black receivers who have yet to be given a real shot to compete in a game.
Race and Gender Inequality in the NFL
Hegemonic power remains an overbearing characteristic of sports and American culture as a whole. In all mediated sports, including the NFL, white masculine hegemony is the ruling force that exploits the lives of others for huge capital gains. For this practice to work effectively, hegemony must be hidden from the consumable context and avoided at all costs to provide the façade of equality among race, class and gender. It is surmised that in sport and elsewhere, “hegemonic masculinity often takes the form of a white supremacist, powerful, aggressive, sexist and heterosexist ideal that exists most comfortably at the level of myth, and serves to equate whiteness, heterosexuality, athleticism, and (of course) males with power” (Oates & Durham, 2004, p. 5).
When examining the intersections of race and gender within the NFL matrix, women are almost entirely absent from all aspects of the organization aside from more minor roles such as brief on-field reporters and cheerleaders. The 2017 Racial and Gender Report Card is annually conducted by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport to rate different sports leagues based upon their employment diversity. Overall, the NFL scored a ‘B’ for general diversity, an ‘A’ for racial diversity, and a ‘C’ for gender diversity. Not surprisingly, NFL players are overwhelmingly African-American, representing about 67.3% of the league. As a whole for racial hiring, “the NFL received an A+ for both players and assistant coaches, an A- for professional administrators, the league office, and head coaches, a B for team senior administrators and general managers, and an F for team vice presidents” (Lapchick, 2017). Unfortunately, ranking is not usually assessed in these ratings, as the NFL has far more African-Americans in lower level positions than in high-profile jobs. Although players, coaches, and managerial staff earn viable salaries, they are part of a system dominated by white men who own the teams and run the league as a whole.
In regards to gender diversity in NFL hiring, the league is not as representative of the percentage of women in the country as it is racially. In the report, women are statistically excluded from the population of players, yet there are no grade calculations for women’s presence among the coaching staff. Although it remains true that there are no females present on any team’s coaching staff, it is odd that the report does not indicate this gender variance. As a whole, “the NFL received a B- for team professional administrators and the League Office while receiving an F for senior administrators and team vice presidents” regarding gender hiring (Lapchick, 2017). When women do appear, they are most visibly present as on-field reporters during an injury update, at halftime or the game’s finality, or as cheerleaders. Cheerleaders are often the lowest paid employees, often earning less than one thousand dollars annually. They usually accept the job for publicity as a means to attain other occupational employment, such as modeling. In addition to requirements to adhere to normative beauty standards that include thinness, cheerleaders are expected to perform for the duration of the game in rain, snow, or shine, while their male counterparts who serve as mascots are sometimes paid up to $65,000 annually (Peter, 2016).
In an interview that I conducted with an ex-Patriots cheerleader who wishes to remain anonymous, she stated that she was paid poorly. She was hired a little over ten years ago at the age of 20 for her thin physique and appearance. Similar to black male players, she was weighed and measured when hired, but in this case, rewarded for thinness over strength. Once her initial weight was recorded, she was contractually obligated to stay within a pound or two of her original weight. She was also forced to keep a daily food/meal log for everything she ate and drank, despite the caloric intake needed to practice for several hours a day, six or seven days a week. Other conditions include restrictive rules about changing hair color, getting tattoos, or altering their appearance from their date of hire when they had their full-body pictures taken.
The NFL National Anthem Protests
Midseason 2012, Colin Kaepernick came off the bench for an injured Alex Smith for the San Francisco 49ers and led the team to their first Superbowl appearance since 1994. They would lose the game in what was dubbed the Harbowl because brothers, Jim and John Harbaugh were the head coaches of the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49ers at the time. The following year, as the starting QB for the start of the season, Kaepernick led the team back to the NFC Championship game for a second year in a row, but lost. Over the next three years, the 49ers saw key players retire or get traded or picked up in free agency, leaving Kaepernick with little to no supporting cast. This forced him into situations that resulted in constant battles for the starting spot over guys that were clearly not as good at the position. During the 2016 pre-season, Kaepernick started his protest during the national anthem, sitting and eventually kneeling out of respect for people in the U.S. military. When confronted, he claimed, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color” (Tatum, 2017). His protest carried on for the duration of the season, and in a showing of solidarity among each other, many other players on his team and throughout the league began to partake in demonstrating for a just cause. Kaepernick then opted out of his contract in 2016 in the hopes of getting picked up by any other team in the 2016 offseason. As of now, he remains jobless.
Although some might argue that Colin Kaepernick, who is almost six years removed from a winning season, might not be considered an ideal starting QB for any organization, others would content that he would be a better fit for all but maybe two teams as a backup QB. He would have also been a better fit for the Miami Dolphins this season. The Dolphins offensive scheme is built around the strengths and weaknesses of Ryan Tannehill who has been injured since week 14 of the 2016 season. Tannehill is a mobile QB whose style of play is relatable to that of Kaepernick’s. Instead, the Dolphins went after ex-retired Jay Cutler who, after getting a then-record-high yearly salary, has not produced a single winning season since (he won 14 out of 48 games, <30%, from 2014-2016).
In another example, the Denver Broncos have two underperforming players, Brock Osweiler and Trevor Siemien, who have traded the starting job back and forth throughout the season with a weak return on investment, even with a dominant supporting cast and an all-pro defense. However, the difference in their acceptance into the NFL over Kaepernick’s is that they have not called awareness to systemic, structural, and hierarchical issues that emanate from the hegemonic elite, namely, they did not ask questions about equality or start a movement centralized around issues of police brutality towards African Americans. Race plays another role in that, while most QBs are white, Kaepernick is born of a white mother and black father.
The NFL players’ peaceful protests against police brutality and the mistreatment of black and brown people has become a hot-topic and a widely discussed issue in the media. On the one hand, there are a community of players, many of whom come from impoverished communities, who have experienced or witnessed racial profiling by police and law enforcement. Most NFL players do not come from wealth or powerful families, especially black players. As such, many of them have been mistreated or unjustly arrested by a predominantly white police force, and/or have witnessed loved ones or peers who been subjected to police brutality or injustice. When Kaepernick started the protest movement, he did so without saying much about it until the media exploited an opportunity to create controversy, which has resulted in heavily circulated stories surrounding the issue. As with all ongoing quests for high ratings, the oligopolistic mass media exploited the issue by focusing on player personalities over coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement’s goals and mission, while also trivializing the structural discriminatory issues faced by blacks and minorities within and outside the NFL. Throughout the ongoing coverage of the issue, the media offered a fanfare of heavily opinionated arguments from both sides of the aisle (usually bifurcated between players and management, whites and minorities, blacks and the police, and liberals vs. conservatives). As the drama continued, Kaepernick became alienated and eventually unemployed. Topping the media ratings was President Donald Trump’s provocative and incendiary missive before a crowd of white, nationalistic, and racist supporters in Alabama. “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. He is fired” (Stelter, 2007).
From a racial and class perspective, Trump’s comments fanned the flames around the heavily mediated coverage of the Black Lives Movement, and Kaepernick’s role within it. In terms of his political, ideological, and economic interests, Trump’s views are aligned with many NFL team owners as well, although not all are vocal in their support. Take Bob McNair, owner of the Houston Texans. Beyond his NFL team, his extensive business interests include ownership of power plants in New York and West Virginia, along with a biotechnology investment firm. With an estimated net-worth of $3.8 billion, he also serves as chairman of The McNair Group, a financial and real-estate firm, as well as a private investment company that handles all of his public and private investments. Soon after Trump incited his backlash to the ‘Kaepernick rebellion,’ McNair came out in the height of the protest controversy, infamously stating, “We can’t have the inmates running the prison.” Similarly, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones made billions through many failed business ventures made possible by borrowing money from Jimmy Hoffa’s teamsters union twice. Like Trump, he was eventually handed a job by his father at the family’s insurance company. He then converted some of that money into an oil exploration business in Alaska, now known as Jones Oil and Land Lease, and he is now worth an estimated $5.6 billion. Although Jones initially joined his team at midfield, kneeling with his arms locked with his players to show a sense of solidarity and respect from the owner to the players, he capitulated after Trump’s comments, warning that any player who disrespects the flag or does not stand for the anthem will not play in the game. (Associated Press, 2017).
Combined, the media’s sensationalistic coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the backlash that emerged from the hegemonic elite, hardened racial and ethnic divisions while yielding high drama and ratings for corporate media. Rather than enhance American’s historical understanding of racism and discrimination, the media’s “contemporary political engagements imply that hostility and overt conflict are becoming the most common ways to communicate disagreement. In these political spaces, the binary of for-or-against dispositions threaten to prevail” (Forst, 2017, p. 13). In contrast, fair and balanced media coverage of the NFL national anthem protests would offer relevant data, including the fact that America is home to the highest number of incarcerated people per capita in the world. “The American criminal justice system holds more than 2.3 million people in 1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 901 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,163 local jails, and 76 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers, and prisons in the U.S. territories” (Wagner & Rabuy, 2017).
In a comprehensive chart made by the Prison Policy Initiative, American states are ranked as if they were countries compared to every other country, including the U.S., where this data is accessible. Drawing from well over 100 countries, Turkmenistan is the second most incarcerated country in the world and comes far behind 33 of America’s individual states, as well as the U.S. as a whole. The study also found that, “racial and ethnic minorities still make up more than 60% of the people currently incarcerated in the United States. Black men have a 32% chance of going to prison at some time in their lives. For young African American men who have not completed high school, the risk is an appalling 68%” (Novek, 2014). Roughly 24% of America’s total population is made up of colored people, while far more than half of the imprisoned population in this country are colored. Going to prison for young black men has become such a normal occurrence, that often-times young black men expect to be imprisoned at least once in their lifetime. The large disappearance of young black men as fathers or role models in impoverished communities has also been noted to take a significant toll on the rest of the community. Systemic media coverage would reveal that many of these communities “have become characterized by broken families, increasing poverty, economic blight, eroded civil liberties, and hopelessness (Wagner & Rabuy, 2017).
While corporate media have systematically failed to provide fair and balanced coverage of the relevant issues surrounding the NFL player controversy and the Black Lives Matter movement, they successfully scapegoated Kaepernick, who remains unemployed, while boosting their ratings and subsequent profits. In spite of this, however, the impact of Kaepernick’s movement has spread among other players seeking social change, like Philadelphia Eagles Safety Malcolm Jenkins. By founding The Players Coalition, Jenkins and other NFL players have created an awareness campaign seeking structural restitution. For instance, they have met with league officials and owners to discuss policy reform and alternate ways in which players would be allowed to demonstrate what they, and many others, see as racial inequality and injustice in this country. Jenkins has seemingly taken over as the vocal leader of the player’s movement, stating that protests against the flag and national anthem, while powerful and worthwhile, are not ideal. He recently claimed, “We don’t really enjoy doing this… We’d love to have a different platform and we think that’s something we could work collaboratively with the NFL to create, to actually draw awareness to the issues we’re doing, to use the NFL as a vehicle to make real change” (USA Today, 2017).
After Jenkins’ comments, the NFL’s owners and officials, along with players and coaches, reached an agreement in which the NFL plans to provide funding for organizations and causes that all participating parties agree upon, to the tune of $90 million from now until 2023. Absent in the agreement was a mandate forcing players to stop kneeling during the national anthem. Some owners pushed for this to be implemented as a strict rule, while most opposed it, including NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. The hope seems to be that, because the NFL has agreed to respect the wishes of the Player’s Coalition and has given them an alternate platform to create social change through NFL funding, the players will in turn respect the wishes of the owners and stand for the national anthem.
As a huge corporate entity, the NFL reflects the political, economic, and ideological interests of the hegemonic elite. Combined with corporate media, wealthy white men prevail to ensure that “the ideas and values associated with the NFL [are] actively shaped and carefully packaged. The game’s values and associations seem natural and enduring precisely because of this careful planning. Hegemony… requires hard work” (Oates, 2016). Although the NFL employs thousands of people and generates billions of dollars per year, the distribution of that wealth and the inequalities within its ranks need scrutiny. Moreover, media profits associated with the NFL conglomerate represent parallel hegemonic interests that favor sport and spectacle over divisions and discrimination, offering mass distraction from real-world issues. By framing Colin Kaepernick’s decision not to stand for the national anthem as an act of defiance against the prevailing order rather than as an honorable and courageous decision for valid reasons, the corporate media undermined his intent, while defiling the Black Lives Matter movement. Despite this, the media will never be able to take away Kaepernick’s phenomenal athleticism and integrity, nor the impact of his conviction to protest brutality and racial injustice. Ultimately, the onus will be on the NFL players and the public to determine if The Player’s Coalition creates a viable platform that allows them to bring awareness to issues that lead to social justice and change in the communities that they and their peers are from.
Student Author: Paul Todaro, Worcester State University
Faculty Evaluator & Editor: Julie Frechette, Ph.D., Professor & Chair, Department of Communication, Worcester State University
Post Script: The author is an avid fan of the NFL and a life-long fan of the Philadelphia Eagles. His goal in providing this critical analysis of what goes on behind the scenes in the NFL is in the spirit of improving the game for all.
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