Let’s say you’re at a job fair. Among the booths and kiosks, you meet a recruiter with an intriguing proposition: He’s got a job in your field that pays $2.1 million per year, with a three year contract and options for more. But here’s the catch: The job will take 10 years off your life and there’s a good chance it leaves you with medical issues ranging from persistent low-level pain to clinical insanity.
Do you take the job?
This is the Faustian bargain facing NFL players. At its safest, the sport of football is dangerous; at its highest level, it’s a crapshoot with catastrophe. During the average game, six to seven players will suffer an injury, according to the NFL’s latest data. Even if your bones aren’t crunched or your knees aren’t shredded, there’s a 99% chance for professional football players to end up with a tragic brain disease by the end of their life.
And yet, $6.3 million dollars is a lot of money, especially if you grew up in a poor neighborhood. And there’s the glory. “Exalted sports hero” is one of the highest levels of status one can attain in a community. If everything goes right, your name will be etched in history along with a piece of jewelry that ensures you’ll never have to pay for drinks again (at least within select zip codes).
So again, put yourself in their cleats: What do you do?
A different set of moral dilemmas have been thrust on NFL fans in recent years. Lead by the widely loathed, richly compensated commissioner Roger Goodell, the NFL has lurched from one scandal to the next: There was the Ray Rice domestic violence debacle; the damning evidence that the NFL was slow to respond to its growing concussions and CTE crises; the vindictive and drawn out Deflategate saga; and of course, the National Anthem controversy.
In each of these instances, the NFL’s response has made a bad situation worse, making the league appear aloof and uncaring. Which, frankly, it appears they are. Many of the billionaires who own NFL franchises are among the most grotesque examples of the greed and nepotism that operate at the highest levels of capitalism.
And yet. In many respects, NFL teams don’t belong so much to an individual owner as to the local communities themselves (in one instance, literally). Among all four major North American sports leagues, the NFL is the truest team sport, a clear and precise metaphor for what can be accomplished collectively when we pull together in all of our unique roles. And the NFL can provide an important cultural catharsis; sports are a healthy venue for our tribalist leanings and a neutral fulcrum point for people of all different backgrounds to come together.
This may be overly romantic, but I believe sports matter, in ways we don’t even register. The same could be said for integrity. So what’s a decent person to do?
Punting the Ball
If you’re walking away from the NFL, I understand. Where the most persistent ethical issue in the other professional leagues centers around the morality of the extravagant pay, the NFL is host to a whole series of other issues. Goodell and the owner’s feckless response to the National Anthem controversy has infuriated people on both sides of the debate. And frankly, watching individual contests can feel guilt-inducing now that we’ve had more research into the devastating effects of the game.
So, I totally get it if you want to find something else to do with your Sundays this fall. At the same time, if you’re a passionate, but politically disillusioned football fan, I don’t believe boycotting the NFL is much different than those conservatives who smashed their Keurig coffee machines after the company pulled their ads off Hannity last fall (or the ones who set their Nikes aflame on Labor Day over Colin Kaepernick, but more on that later).
Instead, here are some steps we can take as individuals to diffuse some of the ethical landmines scattered across the football field, while sending an impactful message to the NFL’s owners and Roger Goodell.
Boycott the Official Sponsors of the NFL
The difference between an NFL game and a cable news show like Hannity is that, with the exception of out-of-market Monday Night Football games on ESPN and certain Thursday Night Football games, it doesn’t cost you anything to watch the NFL. A football game isn’t like a television show that would be cancelled then replaced: whether you watch it or not, the game will be broadcast on local television, for free, at least until the multi-billion dollar broadcast contracts run out in 2022.
So rather than sacrifice the joy of watching your local team, disassociate your wallet from the league’s official sponsors during the season. As Papa John recently learned, consumer backlash can unleash a steep drop in your company’s value. If NFL fans (who, as The Hustle points out, have historically been “20% more likely than the average consumer to buy brands they see advertised”) collectively decide to boycott the league’s official sponsors, we might finally see a change in NFL leadership.
To be clear, this is no small task. While it might be easy to put off buying a new Ford Pickup or Bose home stereo system, it’s not so easy to avoid swiping your Visa card. But if you at least familiarize yourself with the brands that are putting up, in some cases, billions of dollars in sponsorship money for the NFL, you can decide what to do from there. And yes, this includes Nike, who re-upped their deal with the league in March.
If you’re particularly aggrieved, contact the NFL’s sponsors directly and tell them why you’ll no longer be buying their product. You can find last year’s list of NFL sponsors at Sports Business Daily and the list of NFLPA sponsors can be found here.
Don’t Buy Any (Official) NFL Merchandise
In a similar vein, the ethical NFL fan should abstain from buying any officially-branded merchandise for the duration of the 2018/19 season. Despite the persistent controversies, NFL revenue is still up year-over-year, peaking at more than $8 billion last season, according to ESPN. By freezing the coffers of both its sponsors and the league’s collectively shared revenue, disillusioned fans can hit the NFL on both fronts.
To be clear, you can and should still buy those clever bootleg shirts hawked outside the stadium.
Buy Tickets or Make a Charitable Donation
For many season ticket holders, it’s simply not reasonable to sacrifice their long-term investment because of the league’s current conundrums. And even more of us have meaningful traditions tied to NFL games, traditions that supercede any of the NFL’s short-term crises.
Still, it’s hard to advocate for a sponsorship boycott while contributing to the most direct revenue source for a team. So if your conscience is troubled by attending a game, make a donation to a charitable cause as well. It doesn’t necessarily need to offset the full value of a game ticket, but money toward a cause tangentially connected to the NFL, be it research into brain injuries or local sports initiatives, can still be rewarding. Even better: Make the donation in Goodell’s/ your team’s owner’s name.
Support Local Businesses
If millions of NFL fans collectively decided to no longer watch football, the first businesses to be hit wouldn’t be the teams; it would be the local bars who rely on Sundays in the fall to cover for the slower periods of the year. So, rather than staying home on the couch, watch the games at locally-owned taverns and bars (just don’t order any Bud Lights).
If the bar has the NFL Sunday Ticket, they’re paying an exorbitant fee to the NFL for that privilege. That complicates things, so unless you’re a fan of a team outside of your local market, you may want to avoid these bars.
However, boycotting the league altogether will only put small business owners in a precarious position. If you’re concerned with the NFL’s ethics, the actions outlined above are a more effective solution than taking money out of the register at the local pub.
Ignore Donald Trump
This is the most important rule of all. As with many, many, many other topics, the President is intentionally trying to mislead you about the NFL. Trump has taken up the National Anthem controversy as his cause célèbre not because of his strong personal feelings about a genuinely complicated free speech issue but because he’s a small, petty man who has been repeatedly rebuffed in his attempts to get into the football business.
So when Trump pops off about this issue — and he will, there’s no doubt about that — don’t indulge the clickbait articles recapping his latest Twitter tantrum. Don’t engage with the disingenuous trolls supporting him on Twitter or post sick burns to social media. When it comes to opining about Trump and the NFL, pull a reverse Nike: Just Don’t Do It.
There are good, reasonable people on both sides of the debate around the National Anthem. There is also a third group of people who are convinced, thanks to in part to Trump, that this protest is about the military; taking our own advice, we won’t indulge these misguided souls. If you feel that NFL players are choosing the wrong venue to express their political convictions, that’s fair and understandable. If you feel the players are peacefully drawing attention to social issues that disproportionately affect the majority-minority communities in which many NFL players are raised, that’s also a valid point.
But regardless of your personal views, let’s show a little sportsmanship to the other side. As someone with a lot of creative/ intellectual friends who are bewildered by the appeal of sportsball — they always call it sportsball — I have long pitched its chief virtue as the rare arena that can be split into clear binaries of “winning” and “losing” (and functionally, the emotions of “happy” or “sad”). To me, sports provide a respite from the persistent ambiguity of daily life, where compromise and negotiation override simple good-bad dialectics.
As I see it, boycotting the NFL is surrendering to an unnecessary and unhealthy mindset. It’s a symptom of our hyper-politicized and partisan culture, the one that is dividing our nation into red and blue teams that despise each other with the passion of, well, NFL rivals.
The NFL is mired in problems of its own making (it’s telling that they’ve managed to ostracize both liberals and conservatives over the same issue). It’s also among the increasingly rare venues where people can set aside political and cultural differences to unite for a common cause. The NFL is complicated and complicated problems require nuanced solutions. Boycott the league’s sponsors, stay away from merch, and minimize your financial contributions, while celebrating the tangential benefits it provides to our communities; this, to me, is how we can best advance the ball downfield, marching together to the goal.