Updated: Jan 18, 2022
In this piece, Oliver Ind argues that the NFL has become an "inherently political" league. Given the league's place as a synonym for American culture, Ind argues that it is important to understand its hidden elements whilst outlining what such elements are.
The National Football League (NFL) is the backbone of America’s beloved sport “Football.” More than 40 million fans attended NFL games live in 2021, despite a global pandemic, reiterating the fact that ‘Americans love the NFL’ (ESPN). The league has recently seen its fair share of political controversy with the national anthem protest designed to raise awareness of police brutality. Yet, athletes kneeling isn’t the only way the NFL is political – from questionable political activity by owners to donations from the league itself and of course social justice, this seemingly institutionalised sports league is inherently political.
Owned by the super-rich
The NFL is a multi-billion-dollar franchise. As ridiculous amounts of money flow within the league, it is no surprise that NFL team owners are some of not just America’s, but the World’s, richest people. In fact, 2018 saw the sale of the Carolina Panthers for an extortionate $2.3 billion USD (Forbes). Some uber-rich owners choose to spend their wealth on political donations, which are effectively limitless after the landmark FEC vs Citizens United (which strips fundraising limits for independent Super PAC) ruling in 2010. The financial powerhouse, composed of the super-rich that run and own the NFL, could be said to run and own politics due to their vast political donations. Thus, many of these super-rich owners are often entrenched within certain political sects. Take, for example, the New York Jets. The team is co-owned by Woody Johnson (SI), the heir to the Johnson and Johnson fortune. In 2015 he became one of Trump’s leading campaigners helping the future President raise billions (New York Times). It was no surprise that upon Trump’s inauguration in 2017, Johnson was appointed to one of the most coveted positions in the State Department, United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom (Daily Mail). The finances that the NFL has brought to Johnson surely must have helped him gain such a powerful position in the Trump Administration? And Johnson is not the only one. Before Nov 3rd (Election Day) 2020, roughly $12 million was donated to political campaigns from NFL owners and interestingly only $1.9 million was donated to democratic campaigns (SI). This raises an interesting point: has the NFL become a cheerleading squad for the Republican Party?
A sport-league or lobby firm?
The NFL as an organisation spends a great deal of money on lobbying and contributing to campaigns too. This is quite normal for the U.S. The organisation donates to various political figures, across the aisle, in order to cement their agenda and make sure legislators vote in a way that does not harm the league. This may be in the form of agenda-setting legislators, such as Steve Scalise, the Republican Chief Whip in the House that received $15,000 from the NFL in 2020 or vulnerable legislators such as Gary Peters, US Senator from Michigan who received more than $10,000 from the organisation for his highly contested 2020 re-election race (Open Secrets). Many, including myself, question the efficacy of this practice. I firmly believe in a trustee model of representation where the legislator is a trustee to the citizen who trusts that they are working in their interest. Yet, if special interest such as the NFL is funding them, it may cloud their judgement on important legislative matters related to the league, or indeed not related to the league. Though, it must be said that there are strong counterarguments. It is clear that the lobbying arm of the league is quite essential to maintain competitiveness with other sports leagues. Furthermore, the league’s donations could be seen as apolitical - they are bipartisan in nature with recipients ranging from Nancy Pelosi to John Cornyn.
To kneel or not to kneel?
Back in 2016 Colin Kaepernick did something seemingly small, but which would send shockwaves through every household in America. The San Francisco 69ers quarterback knelt during the national anthem at his pre-season games (SB Nation). What followed was remarkable. Kaepernick’s protest was intended to raise awareness of America's police brutality epidemic. Quickly many of his contemporaries in the league joined his protest, with it becoming somewhat of a controversy as to which players would kneel or not. It became one of the major talking points of America’s right-wing. Even Donald Trump criticised the movement and called for team owners to “fire” players who did not stand (The Conversation). The movement has now gone beyond the NFL, it is now commonly seen in Britain, during football (soccer) games where it has gained criticism by Nigel Farage, Britain’s anti-woke firebrand, and his contemporaries. But the movement started with Colin Kaepernick, it started in the NFL. Thus, the NFL is the source of a social justice movement.
One of the main reasons for the movement’s criticisms is its popularity and connections with the left-wing of the political spectrum; 18% of GOP voters found it acceptable to kneel during the anthem in contrast to 85% for democrats (CBS News). This raises an interesting question about whether the political nature of the movement has tampered with its aims of ending police brutality. Jonathan Finn asks this question in a fascinating Op-Ed (The Conversation). He asks, “what if Tom Brady took a knee instead of Colin Kaepernick?” Finn argues that the backlash to the protest may be because Kaepernick is black himself and suggests that the general populace may have taken to the movement better if it was started by someone like Tom Brady. But, arguably the most compelling response to the movement by Finn is that it challenges “American exceptionalism” (The Conversation). The campaign highlights the reality; American exceptionalism may be exaggerated as racial injustice, inequality and police brutality are rife.
It is hard to reject the hypothesis that the NFL is inherently political. Yet, the NFL is not alone. This year NASCAR racing saw the rise of the “Let’s Go Brandon” (The Conversation) movement which has become a colloquial saying for “F**k Joe Biden.” Furthermore, many other major sports leagues, such as the MLB are often seen to be equally as political (Yahoo!). In some respects, political activism within sport can be good, such as the social awareness brought by the kneeling campaign. But it is hard to miss the disadvantages of the NFL’s political nature, it further contributes to the divisiveness of the political debate and I am a firm believer that sport should be a unifier, not a divider.
Written by Oliver Ind
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