I’m writing from Eugene, Oregon, where I have come for my yearly reunion with college friends. Each year we meet to watch a University of Oregon football game, reliving the many games we watched in college. I love football. One of my first memories is of watching the 1979 NFC Championship game between the Los Angeles Rams and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. You can say I was raised on the sport.
But as a progressive, I’ve had a complex relationship with the game for years. As much as I love it, I have an awfully hard time overcoming football’s terrible political ramifications. In fact, it stands for nearly everything that I oppose. As a labor historian, I am sensitive to how the game exploits its players. The NCAA refuses to pay players even a pittance while they make billions of dollars off the athletes. These young men technically get a free education, but many schools devalue that educational experience and make it quite clear why these students are on scholarship. Too often coaches give athletes the message, “work too hard in school and no playing time for you.”
The NFL certainly pays some of its players well, but the league’s defenders often overstate their case. While a few players become very wealthy, most disappear within a few years. The league’s collective bargaining agreement provides very little protection for players and teams can often get out of paying the full amount agreed to on contracts.
Many players come from poverty and attempt to support their extended family on their incomes. The NFL also ignores the significant physical damage their game causes men as they age. Increasingly, we are hearing about cases of severely decreased mental capacity, early onset Alzheimer’s, depression, and suicide because of concussions and other head injuries. In October, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell testified in front on a Senate committee, but refused to acknowledge a direct connection between concussions and long-term brain problems.
This reprehensible denial shows the great fear the NFL has over the potential head injuries could have on their game; safety has taken a back seat to hard hitting for decades and this could bring the powerful league to its knees. Ideally, the NFL would take responsibility and provide proper medical care for its ex-players but so far, they have shown little inclination to do so.
At least the NFL has taken real steps to fight against racism. African-American head coaches are so common by now as to escape note. Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney played a major role in this transformation, convincing the NFL to mandate interviewing minority candidates for coaching positions in what became known as the Rooney Rule.
On the other hand, in college football, racism in hiring abounds. Alumni and boosters exert substantial control over football programs. These networks of extremely conservative white men almost universally prefer other conservative white men as football head coaches. Because of this, few major universities have hired African-Americans as head coaches, and only one remains on the job. Smaller schools have done a better of job of minority hiring, but these are consistently in positions that make it difficult to succeed and advance in the profession.
The University of Mississippi goes so far as to embrace their Confederate past at football games. Not only was this school famous for fighting desegregation in early 1960s, but they have continued to create a Confederate identity in their football program. From their Rebels moniker to the use of the Confederate flag to the playing of “Dixie,” to their fans insistence upon chanting “The South will rise again,” the school that rioted rather than let James Meredith attend in 1962 continues to hold onto its racist past as a matter of pride and identity.
Homophobia also reigns supreme in football. Not only do fans frequently hear homophobic slurs coming from their fellow attendees, but athletes regularly engage in them as well. The Kansas City Chiefs recently released running back Larry Johnson for using anti-gay slurs toward his coach. Not a single football player has declared himself gay while playing. In 2002, former Green Bay Packer Esera Tuaolo came out after retirement and brought the issue of homophobia in football into the light, but many players were openly disgusted to know he was gay and publicly vowed never to share the locker room with a gay teammate.
Finally, there’s the behavior football allows its players to engage in. Michael Vick’s dogfighting conviction received a ton of media coverage, but I am more concerned with the all too common domestic violence cases. I found it quite interesting that society condemned Vick’s actions far more vociferously than the horrible things that happen to women involved with players. I’m not defending Vick, who at least deserved his prison term, but football and its fans downplay off-the-field violence that players routinely engage in. Football is used as an excuse for domestic violence committed by fans as well. Weekly domestic violence rates peak on Sunday afternoons, as men take out their frustrations with losing teams on the women around them.
Despite all of this, what can I do? When I was at the University of Tennessee in the late 1990’s, I recoiled from the culture of football that dominates in Knoxville; the university itself barely mattered to the town or even for the students. Still, when I left Knoxville in 2000 for New Mexico, I became a fan again.
It is a great game. It’s also a horrible game. I have no way of resolving this dilemma. It would be nice to see football lose its more regressive elements. But we all know this is never going to happen. Maybe, I am only writing this piece to assuage my guilt.