Is Football Our Fault?

September 17, 2014
By | 8 Comments

The NFL’s woes are well known. The game is harmful to players, so much that some veterans ravaged by the sport’s effects have committed suicide with a bullet to the chest. They are sparing their brains to be studied, to further scientific understanding of the trauma of football. The league is populated mainly by decent people, perhaps, but it also has more than its share of violent criminals who are lightly punished for their transgressions. One team has a racist name that some mainstream news outlets refuse to print, and the owner refuses to change it.

covergirl nfl

More generally, and less publicized, the masculinist character of the sport and its media representation is troubling to anyone with an interest in gender equality. As with many of the very popular spectator sports, heroized men play while sexualized women cheer. The sport itself is violently militaristic. The centrality of football every autumn and winter in American society gives many straight men an opportunity to shirk domestic responsibilities in the name of their fandom and their fantasy standings (perhaps the deep fantasy of this endeavor is that you can stop attending to anything else). Of course millions of women watch. The league has been courting them aggressively, as during the pinkwashing of Breast Cancer Awareness season. I wouldn’t question the authenticity of anyone’s fandom but they must often recognize that the game they love makes little place for them.

Football is not just a cultural fixture, but the most popular and profitable media content in America. While not very much studied by TV scholars, football games on TV get Nielsen ratings that are staggering in an age of niche audiences and narrowcasting. While a hit sitcom today might have ratings numbers that would have led to quick cancellation in previous generations, football games continue to draw a mass audience. Thus the expansion of the football schedule in prime time from one game a week on Mondays to additional games on Thursdays and Sundays. TV money is the golden ticket for the league and the people who get rich from it.

It’s hard to see how the NFL might change as long as it remains the most popular show on television in a big rich country like this one. Some suggest that the most likely outcome for football is that parents will forbid their children from playing out of brain injury fears. But depriving the league of a next generation of players through this kind of cultural change would be a slow process. A class system would likely emerge as less well off communities continue to support football even after cultural elites shun the sport. The prospects for near-term reform don’t look very good. America isn’t about to replace our bad kind of football with the appealing sport called football by the rest of the world, even with the World Cup enthusiasm we saw over the summer. If the World Cup had been programmed against even early season NFL matchups, it’s hard to imagine a similar level of interest in America.

I’m not a huge NFL fan, but I support my home team (Green Bay), and I love pro football as a TV show. It looks really pretty in HD. It has great spectacle value when the broadcast comes from a noisy stadium filled with fans in their home colors. The game itself, despite the irritating frequency of commercial interruption and video replay delays, has a compelling dramatic quality. There are personalities and backstories, rivalries and nemeses, reversals of fortune, a sense of a narrative arc and natural suspense. Many football plays have beauty and grace, surprise and excitement, and the physical skill and stature of the players is simply awesome. The broadcasts increase the sport’s appeal with digital enhancements like the first down line and wild camera angles from overhead. Unlike a lot of TV now, you can peek in on a football game and watch 10 or 20 minutes. It doesn’t demand your total attention. And it’s fun to watch in a group. It gives us something to talk about and sustains many bonds on regional, community, and familial levels.

But the game and the league are so offensive, it’s becoming a guilty pleasure and not in the way we often use that phrase. My guilt has nothing to do with aesthetics, but everything to do with ethics. Is it right to give my attention to this brutal, exploitative, retrograde amusement? Should I turn off the game in the name of doing good? I sometimes wonder. I wouldn’t be the first — others have lately declared that they are giving up the NFL. People refuse media they object to in all kinds of ways, as political protest or articulations of identity.

No one has to watch a show they dislike, but I sense that fans who give up football don’t dislike it. They disapprove of it, and are denying themselves a pleasure out of conscience. I admire this to an extent, but also wonder what it all adds up to. Anyone with a critical sensibility and some media literacy knows how to appreciate popular culture that is on some level offensive. Hollywood movies are full of racist, sexist, heteronormative, classist, and other kinds of not very progressive representations. If you are so offended, you can stay away from the movies. But it’s not that hard to accept that the pleasures they offer are in balance with the offenses they give. It’s good to call out these problems of representation, as it is to call out the dominance of rich white men in the media industries. We should talk about it. At the very least, we need to engage with these representations in order to function as their critics. As long as football is a popular television show, I will probably keep on taking pleasure from it. I don’t think I, personally, am doing any harm. I don’t think football is my fault.

In other forms of ethically contested media, such as pornography, it is sometimes argued that the audience’s attention amounts to complicity in exploitation. During the aftermath of the circulation of stolen photos of young female celebrities last month, some people I follow on twitter suggested (or retweeted) that looking at the images means participating in the crime. Probably the most extreme formulation of this stance would be the statutes that make it a crime to possess child pornography. I wouldn’t want to make too close a comparison between the exploitation of football players by the NFL and the exploitation of children by pornographers. But the juxtaposition here is meant to reveal that we can and do think of paying attention to media having the potential to carry a strong ethical charge. Maybe we should feel guilty for watching football. But this doesn’t make it the audience’s responsibility to change the league and the game. As individual viewers we can’t really effect a meaningful change in the culture of football. We can’t change football by turning it off any more than we can end global warming by turning down our thermostats. Major political-economic and regulatory and cultural changes would have to occur for football to be effectively reformed. (Of course we can work toward those goals if we want to, but individuals not watching and proclaiming their refusal won’t do the trick.) Massive advertiser boycotts would be a good start. Perhaps the best we can do in our own private lives as fans of the game is to watch in our conflicted state, acknowledging at once our pleasure and our displeasure, and hoping for better. Maybe even, one of these days, for the league’s demise. After all, every show on TV gets canceled eventually.


Tags: ,

8 Responses to “ Is Football Our Fault? ”

  1. Jason Mittell on September 17, 2014 at 8:26 AM

    Smart piece, Mike. I’ve been an active NFL fan for years, and I decided to give it up this year. I’ll check to see how my Patriots are doing in the standings, but I can’t watch the games any longer without guilt and shame overshadowing my pleasure.

    For us academics, the other aspect of this story that we must attend to is the role of college football in the US, and how it has corrupted American higher education. For those of us at D1 schools, how do we deal with the fact that a huge budget goes to support a program that enlists & exploits unpaid players, claims to give them access to an education (but rarely the time or incentive to actually get educated), while damaging their bodies and brains for the amusement of the masses & a slim chance at a future windfall in a corrupt industry? For those of us at non-D1 programs, football can still be a massive drain on resources and create warped incentives, while still damaging the players who aren’t even competing for a chance at a massive pro sports windfall.

    I don’t know what faculty should do about such issues, but it’s worth talking about it publicly, and imagining how your institution might be different without football. (For starters, you’d probably get rid of its highest paid staff member!)

  2. Michael Z. Newman on September 17, 2014 at 10:44 AM

    Thanks! Agree completely. I also think high school football is worth our attention while we’re at it. I have heard a defense along the lines of: it gives lots of boys an incentive to keep up with school so that they won’t be dropped from the team. I don’t know much about what goes on in high schools these days but that’s a perverse incentive.

  3. Chuck Tryon on September 17, 2014 at 11:26 AM

    I’ve also been thinking about these issues quite a bit. It’s easier, perhaps, to drop pro football when your team isn’t performing well (in my case, the Falcons), but the violence and misogyny have made it all but impossible to watch without feeling guilty (or at least complicit in these behaviors).

    I’ve been thinking about football in relationship to boxing, which continues to be incredibly profitable, even while it is also incredibly marginal. Some of this has to do with HBO and other channels scooping up exclusive rights to major fights, but it also has to do with a growing distaste for the sport for somewhat similar reasons (domestic abuse, concussions, etc). It’s hard o imagine a similar trajectory for football–more people participate, the civic associations are much stronger–unless sponsors really do decide to bail (which I suspect is actually unlikely).

    The “perverse incentive” of playing sports–especially football–is certainly an issue, but from personal experience, that incentive CAN be directed towards other sports, such as lacrosse, that may be a little less violent. That said, the incidents of violence associated with other collegiate sports raise the question as to whether this is a football problem or a sports and masculinity problem.

  4. Marilyn on September 17, 2014 at 2:08 PM

    “Perhaps the best we can do in our own private lives as fans of the game is to watch in our conflicted state, acknowledging at once our pleasure and our displeasure, and hoping for better.”

    Really? That’s the best we can do? Nothing?

    No, you’re not to blame for football, per se, but as a consumer of it, you share some responsibility for its continuation. I gather you don’t consider private watching a form of public engagement, but everything starts with refusal to maintain the status quo. Rosa Parks REFUSED to sit in the back of the bus. That was a personal decision that became a platform for action.

    Sorry, but you sound like someone who really isn’t interested in changing this situation and are advising others to follow your lead.

  5. Derek Kompare on September 17, 2014 at 2:10 PM

    Thoughtful exploration of the football dilemma, Michael. Like Jason, I’ve backed off from watching it completely. It’s one of the clearest examples in our culture of how a particular kind of entertainment can get so big, and seemingly so central, that it’s problems are waved away, even while they’re right out in the open (see also: a two-party political system). The clincher for me is that all the excesses of football are at the expense of young men’s bodies: they are actually, seriously, hurting themselves for our entertainment. How many of us could take one hit, even in a practice setting, let alone the hundreds or thousands that pro players endure in their careers? That pain and damage has been in denial for decades.

    I’m not sure I agree that we’re not responsible. Even beyond the personal ethics (“I choose not to partake of this.”), not participating means withholding attention and purchasing power. I would love to see the ratings and attendance drop by more people doing the same. If that happens, that hurts the owners and the league.

    As Jason said, for many of us teaching at US schools (at any level, really), we have an extra role in speaking out about our own programs. While we may still not have a lot of power, we’ve got relatively more than only as an NFL viewer. My own university is at a crossroads in regards to this at this very moment.

  6. Michael Dwyer on September 17, 2014 at 2:43 PM

    I have been surprised at how little I miss watching football. I thought I really liked it, but even after a season away its appeal seemed totally foreign. I have personally wondered if the pleasure I took from watching football was more about having an easy subject of conversation with which to make small talk with other men (strangers, my dad, college roommates) than it was sincere appreciation of the game itself.

    Like Derek, I do think football (or boxing, or MMA) is different than other kinds of television shows. It is materially damaging to human beings, and the NFL and NCAA have both conspired to obscure the extent of that damage, to its customers and to its workers. I do personally feel that watching critically is not sufficient in this case. Which is why I also feel a great deal of unease about the World Cup in Qatar–I don’t think I can watch that either, and the World Cup is probably my favorite thing on Earth.

  7. Michael Z. Newman on September 17, 2014 at 4:24 PM

    Maybe a matter of opinion, but I don’t think that our individual consumer choices are the best force for change. I think we are often encouraged to think of ourselves as consumer citizens empowered to choose ethically for the betterment of all, but this hides the way power works, which is through institutions more than individuals. So I think the responsibility falls elsewhere. And practically speaking a small number of viewers turning off the NFL (because I imagine the vast majority aren’t all that concerned) won’t make that much of a difference. An organized campaign to boycott the league and its sponsors, maybe. A lot of bad press might help. And maybe all of this fancy talk is just a way of justifying to myself that I still take pleasure in watching 🙂

  8. Cynthia B. Meyers on September 17, 2014 at 9:51 PM

    Thanks for bringing up this issue of criminalizing viewership, as in the case of child porn. The formulation that viewing depictions of rape is the same or as culpable an action as committing rape seems like a total moral panic to me. We don’t criminalize the viewing of other illegal acts (say, depictions of murder) or argue that viewers of videos of murders are as culpable as actual murderers. The ethics of viewership is surely more complicated than that–or more simple: viewership of bad behaviors is not the same as committing those bad behaviors.
    So, to play devil’s advocate here: there may instead be quite a bit of social utility in having all sorts of bad behaviors depicted (whether porn or sports or mayhem) in that viewers get to enjoy it without having to engage in it. Instead of bemoaning our culture saturated in violence and porn, perhaps we live in a golden age of relatively low crime *because* of all of those depictions–including the excessively violent game of football. In that case, I’d say, go ahead and watch and feel virtuous for behaving in a civilized manner by viewing instead of doing. 😉
    (Of course, I’m sidestepping the problem of the harmed performers and their abused families–but that’s another story about why so many people are willing to trade health/safety for a chance at success and fame.)