My favorite thing in the world is politics. There’s nothing that turns the gears in my brain quite like it. Hearing candidates articulate, often poorly, what they think America stands for and what we ought to value as a nation is the lifeblood of democracy, even if the majority of what you hear makes your blood boil.
When policy is actually being debated—a rare event, unfortunately—the immense promise and immense failures of the American state are front-and-center. That our institutions will never live up to our ideals is a testament to our optimism and an acknowledgement of the inadequacies of our institutions. Despite this criticism, I know we’ve come a long way, but I believe we still have further to go.
Football, which might be my second favorite thing ever, is currently facing a series of dilemmas not unlike those we see in American politics.
At its best, football brings out a sense of camaraderie and competition that binds Americans and creates a shared experience that geographic, religious, and socioeconomic differences otherwise serve to divide. The best parts about football aren’t even part of the game itself. There has long been more than one good game on Sunday, , which friends would get together to watch at someone’s house or a bar, and no matter how great the game was, the experience of being together always topped it.
Football can bring about a sense of identity that doesn’t have political meaning; just love for a team or player, and chance to spend time with your friends. Being a fan of the Seahawks or the Patriots doesn’t say much about your politics, even though basically every other form of identity does. We might be bowling alone, but we are watching football together.
Yet, if you’re like me, someone whose interest in football really solidified in the last couple of years, it seems like we’ve been subject to non-stop news about horrible behavior coming out of the NFL in recent years.
Go to any team-specific blog and you’ll see more homophobic comments about Tony Romo and blatantly sexist remarks about Erin Andrews than you can even believe. Team message boards are, too often, bastions of hatred, where football serves as an excuse to express rage at others and fling epithets that cannot be repeated in polite society.
Beyond the fans, the physical danger of football lies in the toll it takes on a player’s body, most importantly, to the brain. Judging from the trailer, Concussion looks like a fantastic film, but it’s another reminder of how hard it is to be both a moral person and an NFL fan at this distressing time.
Perhaps the best way to fix the league’s brokenness is to remove the its commissioner, Roger Goodell, who’s in many ways responsible for the regrettable state of contemporary professional football.
The most charitable interpretation of Goodell’s tenure is that he’s trying his best but is entirely oblivious to the PR nightmare that his inconsistency in enforcing league rules and following through on public statements has created. If he were a prime minister of a foreign nation, he’d no longer be deemed a credible actor. But Goodell, a lifelong employee of the NFL, who rose to the top ranks of the most profitable, largest sports league in America, is unlikely to be an incompetent buffoon.
The much more likely interpretation of Goodell’s behavior is that he’s callous and vindictive, negligent, and unconcerned with (may be even antagonistic to) the well-being of his players. Everything from player cuts in the last collective bargaining agreement, particularly rookie deals which are longer and cheaper, refusal to even negotiate on guaranteed contracts, and what looks like a systematic effort to cover up evidence of concussions, or do much of anything to reduce the probability of their occurrence, makes it hard to dismiss this view.
If the league wants to rehabilitate its image, and really do something to protect its players, it can start by removing Goodell. This won’t magically solve all of the league’s problems, since it will still have to be willing to investigate concussions and make changes to the rules (the biggest impediment to player safety) to limit their likelihood. But no progress can be made until Goodell, like any leader who has lost their legitimacy, has been replaced.
If football is going to be saved, the league itself has to be the standard bearer of reform. When it drags its feet in the name of protecting the shield it only serves to alienate the reformers with a vested interest in the league. Without cooperation. it will lose its dominance over other sports, in the same way that realignments in American politics happen after parties fail to adapt to new points of view. Football will always have its base, much like there will always be supporters of nationalist candidates—Donald Trump, Ross Perot—who drum-up nativist, populist support.
Football is one of the few American institutions that brings us together, and if the sport is unwilling to change, it too will become another fault-line that severs ties in the American experience. Without football, what shared identities will we have left?