Sunday, February 7, 2010

The NFL: An Abject Lesson For America

With everyone watching the Super Bowl (me included), I’m probably talking to myself. But here goes. . . Football truly is America’s game. Indeed, it is a microcosm of America itself. Yet, over the past 20 years, with the growth of the NFL, the game has changed significantly for the worse. In that change lies a warning to America itself.

What Football Was
The game of football uniquely represents American values. Like America itself, it is a game that requires a constant mix of team work and individual talent -- as compared to games like soccer where individual talent is almost meaningless. It is a game that lets you succeed in any number of ways, from strength to speed to specialized skills or brains, just like the American dream offers many paths to success. In America, anyone can succeed, whether they are smart, strong, skillful, or simply hard working. Football also prizes hard work and rewards risk taking, just like America.

Moreover, there is a psychological aspect of football that seems uniquely American. In other sports, scoring is about exploiting a weakness in your opponent; you find the hole in your opponent’s defense and sneak through it to score. That’s not football. Football is about making your own opportunities, about seizing control from the other team and establishing your own destiny.

There are other aspects of football that mirror America as well. . . at least, there used to be. It was one of the first sports to integrate because it didn’t care what you were, so long as you could play. It was also a game that anyone could play regardless of class. You didn’t need to be rich to learn the basic skills (like golf), nor did you need to live in the right part of the country (as you did with hockey because you needed ice), nor did you need to be born into a football family or learn to play from birth. Nor did you need to be born with certain skills (like pitchers) or with certain physical traits (like basketball requires abnormal height); indeed, football uniquely offers a position for anyone to play. In that way, football is like achieving the American dream, anyone could become a great football player so long as they have the drive to succeed.

Thus, football was the epitome of the American dream. Anyone, from anywhere, could learn to play, and they could succeed in any number of ways so long as they worked hard to make themselves into a success. But that was then . . .
The NFL Changes Football
Over the past 20 plus years, football has changed dramatically, and for the worse. As the NFL grew, the focus of the game shifted to money. Teams became worth billions of dollars and profit became all that mattered. Indeed, football stopped being about the sport entirely. It became a business. . . the biggest of big businesses.

Today, the NFL is driven entirely by the profit motive. Owners hire teams of consultants and lawyers to exploit everything they can touch. They hold up cities for stadiums, not to benefit the fans or make the game better, but to squeeze an extra few million out of luxury boxes. Historic jerseys are changed, not because it is something the team or the players or the fans want, but because Nike tells the owners that they can make more money by changing their jerseys. The NFL has become a political lobbying machine, owning more than a few politicians. Few regular fans can now attend the Super Bowl because corporate America has turned the game and the week around it into a retreat for the elite.

The players have changed too. They’ve gone from guys who played because they loved the game to selfish, drug addicted creatures who play for money first, second and third. Did you know there is a strike looming in 2011 because the billionaire owners can’t get along with the millionaire players?

At the same time, the NFL has changed the game itself. When football began, it was a game with a small rule book. It allowed creativity, and the referees really couldn’t determine the outcome. But over the past twenty years, the rule book has grown to epic proportions. It’s become legalistic. Changes where made to placate unions, to satisfy the television contracts, and to try to make the product (formerly known as “the game”) more exciting to a television audience. Did you know that a visiting football team can only bring 43 players to the game, while the home team can brings full compliment? Why would something as stupid as this end up in the rule book? Because it was included in the union contract to reduce payroll costs.

These days, the game is highly regulated. The referees are deciding more and more games. Not a week goes by without the league office handing out fines for player conduct, regulating their speech and conduct. The NFL employs people to walk the sidelines of games and remove or cover up any brands that don’t have a contract with the NFL. The NFL even regulates what coaches can wear on the sidelines.

Along with the legalistic environment, the “technicalities problems” have come en mass. Players can only be discipline as allowed by the union contract, and discipline can be appealed. Want to bench a trouble maker? Better lawyer up. Payroll issues now decide rosters. Even race has returned to plague the NFL after decades of relative racial harmony. It is virtually impossible to criticize black quarterbacks without being called racist. And the NFL has a rule requiring teams to conduct at least one (sham) interview with a “minority” (read: black) applicant before they can hire a new coach. Not to mention the constant complaining from black groups that there aren’t enough black head coaches.

Why? Because the monetary stakes of the game have risen so much that it’s worth fighting about these things.

And this is all flowing down to the lower levels. Do you recall William “the Fridge” Perry? He weighed just over 300 pounds when he played in the 1980s and people were shocked. But his success meant that people had to get bigger and stronger to compete. Today, there almost isn’t a lineman in the league that doesn’t weigh 60 pounds more than that. Indeed, there are NFL quarterbacks today who are larger and heavier than every player in the NFL in the 1920-1970s. What’s worse, this is now becoming the norm at the high school level. I know a coach at a high school team who told me that in his city of 18,000 people all six high school teams have at least five 300 pound kids each on their offense lines -- that’s 30 kids larger than Perry.

How is this happening? With the ridiculous sums of money being thrown at athletes, kids are taking (and some parents are letting them take) steroids and human growth hormone. I’ve read stories of parents who hold their kids back 1-2 years in grade school so that they will be larger than the other kids and get a chance to excel in high school. "School shopping" for guaranteed starting positions is now common for high school players. If you want to be an NFL quarterback, your father better be your high school coach. If you want to coach, your father better have been an NFL coach.

What does all this mean? It means the game no longer invites all comers, it has become a game for professionals only -- from high school to college to the NFL. You now need to be born into a football family. You need to meet certain physical requirements that you can’t achieve without drugs. You need agents and trainers and PR reps. And like all “special people,” the rules no longer apply to these athletes. They can commit crimes and throw public tantrums, but their schools, their employers and their sponsors stick with them. They are forgiven instantly by the system without asking for forgiveness so long as they have talent. Even the law looks the other way. They have become the ancient royalty of old Europe, capable of no act which cannot be ignored.
The Warning To America
There is a lesson in all of this for America. We have allowed our government to grow too large. It is packed with heredity princes like the Kennedy’s and family dynasties like the Bushes, who are above the law. It regulates everything, and it sells its power to regulate to the biggest of big businesses so that they can squeeze their competitors, exploit taxpayers and consumers, and impose a new order on American society that is exclusive and runs contrary to everything that made America great.

It’s time we put an end to this, before big business does to the American dream what the NFL has done to football. Otherwise, there will come a day when the only way to succeed in the United States will be to be born into the right families, to get the right pedigree, and to follow the only allowed path to the top. We will become what Europe was in the 18th Century and has largely become again today.

That is our destiny if we continue to travel down a path of over-regulation, of turning all disputes into legal matters, of corrupt government selling its influence and power to its friends, of family dynasties in politics, of the revolving door between business and government. It’s time the government represented the people again, not just the most important people.


LawHawkSF said...

Andrew: I think you pretty much covered the field with this post. The big business/big government connection is every bit as bad as the big labor/big government connection. It is all leading us to that perfect statist/socialist/corporate state that we should fear as much as any foreign enemy.

Tennessee Jed said...

we are, of course, a capitalist country, so it is easy to understand the "why." We seem to be a culture where everything has to be bigger and better. Except, the better is not always really better.

Especially for guys growing up, sports absolutely is a nostalgia trip to a more innocent time. For me, the begiining of the decline of two things I enjoy immensely started with espn and mtv. The reasons, I think, are obvious (see Milli Vanilli and fantasy football where your are encouraged to root for someone other than your home team.)

StanH said...

The game has indeed changed and is all about the money. The players have become entertainers as much as athletes. I thought the two teams that played this evening kept the off the field shenanigans to near zero. That was nice for a change it was about the game. Congrats New Orleans!

When is the Intense Debate coming?

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, This isn't really about nostalgia. Actually, it's not really about the NFL.

The problems that I'm seeing with the NFL are not problems on the field. They are in a system that allowed the NFL to become a monopoly, to squeeze out the competition, and now to flex that power unchecked without a thought or care for the consequences.

These are the same problems that I'm seeing in the relationship between the biggest businesses and the government. These businesses are using the government both as a bank and a guarantor of their risk taking, but also as a weapon against their competitors and against consumers.

In fact, the key word, as you mention, is "capitalism." I think that far too many organizations in this country have abandoned free market capitalism and have moved into taxpayer financed crony capitalism (quasi-socialism), and the results are that the rest of us pay for their mistakes and we pay for their successes -- but then they hide behind the capitalism label.

And I think the lesson of the NFL is that (1) these things can have negative effects far beyond the immediate industry (e.g. high schools) and (2) just because these companies appear to turn out good product, does not make them good companies.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, I agree. "Big" is rarely good for the free market, because "big" often implies power to control the market. Whether it's big labor, big business, or big government, each of these has the power to twist and distort the market, and that's bad for our country.

And the point I'm making in this article is that even beyond the immediate industry, there are consequences.

AndrewPrice said...

Stan, We're working on it. We had a snafu in that their computer thought we already had it (which I don't understand) so it won't let us sign up a second time. Until we hear back from their tech support people, we're kind of stuck.

I agree about tonights game -- two of the better teams in the league in terms of playing the game for the game, and they did a great job.

Anonymous said...

It is apparent you do not understand Soccer as you out lined in the second paragraph. Soccer is definably dependent upon individual skill, intelligence, teamwork and exploiting your opponents weakness and or his failure to see the plan you have put in motion. All of American Football is a series of set plays. While Soccer is a fluid contiguous
flow with very few interruptions.
In the real world we do plan and execute, but execution is in almost all cases occurring while planning. Soccer is exactly that, execution while the plan is being developed.I do not feel that the major developments that have been accomplished by the American entrepreneur were made in a vacuum.
They were fabricated fine tuned and implemented on the fly.

AndrewPrice said...

Anon, I do understand soccer (having seen a great deal of it), and I do understand that there is individual skill involved -- but it is far less important than in football, where one player truly can make the play from start to finish -- especially in the past where the physical differences between players were much greater. That's virtually impossible in soccer, except at a very amateur level.

Also, my point about football being quintessentially American and soccer not being very consistent with the American psyche is not a new one, it's been observed by many people.

My point about exploiting weakness is that games like soccer are about exploiting weakness -- that's how you score. Football, on the other hand, is a game where you can simply force your will on the other team, thereby controlling your own destiny. That makes football much more consistent with the American spirit, which is about forming our own destinies, not looking for holes in other people's plans that we can slide through.

I would argue, that is the reason that soccer has never and will never catch on in the US -- it just doesn't fit our way of thinking. . . we don’t like the fatalistic aspects.

In terms of planning on the fly, I don't think the distinction is as clear as you say, nor do I think fluid planning is typically American. Any football player will tell you that you can plan all you want, but once the play begins, all the plans are out the window. Moreover, in my experience, most Americans come up with their plans long before they ever put them into action. Indeed, there are few Americans that I've ever met who don't have plans for their future already made, long before they are implemented. Sure there is planning on the fly once you start, but Americans are not the type to let events push them around, they try to shape events. That's a huge distinction between Americans and Europeans.

Tennessee Jed said...

It is late here in the east, and I'm not at my creative best. There certainly is the anti-trust element involved which our elected representatives have allowed to exist in professional sports. I don't know if you remember the original movie "Rollerball" that gets at the same thing. In that movie, governments were replaced by mega corporations. It always struck me that one area where Democrats and Republicans differed, was which big powerful force they trusted least, big government or big business.

Still, for me, sports is very much about nostalgia. There was a purity to playing football with your friends in high school. The notion of the old Olympics, where it was about an individual competing without Coke, or national government funding the whole enterprise. The true notion of the amateur.I remember thinking as a kid, how, it was a good thing that there was a league that set rules to keep the richest teams (say the Yankees) from simply buying all the best players and winning all the time.

There is a book by an lawyer and author named Richard North Patterson. Now Patterson became way too liberal for my political tastes, but earlier in his career, he wrote a book centered around the politics of municipalities getting taxpayers to fund a new stadium (set fictiously in Cleveland as I recall) that brought up some interesting points on the subject. I'll go look it up and then re-post.

Tennessee Jed said...

I'm pretty sure the novel was "Dark Lady."

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, You're killing me. . . do I remember Rollerball??? Read this: LINK -- it's my review of the movie. I think it's a brilliant movie!

Sadly, I think that Rollerball has a very valid point, and we are headed in that direction. We are getting to the point that the larger corporations have more power than many governments, and often have so much influence inside governments that they might as well be considered client-states.

I also think that the Democrats and Republicans have both been bought off to allow this -- and that this is fundamentally anti-capitalist. That's why I do favor strong anti-trust action and why I favor ending the revolving door between corporations and governments.

Definitely post some details about the book you're talking about. I would be very interested to know more about it.

LL said...

I'm a big fan of ROLLERBALL...the original movie

But I also enjoyed the Super Bowl (metaphor notwithstanding).

The police sector where I live is also one where my son-in-law is a patrol officer. I had officers dropping in for a sandwich and a soda, getting a glimpse of the game throughout the Super Bowl. It made the afternoon fun. (and safe)

AndrewPrice said...

LL, You're a man of excellent taste! Rollerball (the original) is one of those movies that I think speaks to conservatives! I love it. Check out the review, you might like it.

Re the Super Bowl, it was a good game, very enjoyable. I liked both teams, so I really couldn't lose. In terms of the NFL generally, don't get me wrong -- I like watching football, but I do have issues with the league as a whole and I do believe that what has happened in the world of football presents a serious warning for our country as a whole.

Tennessee Jed said...

When I saw the date of your review, it makes me think I was probably playing in an old insurance fat cats golf tournament at the time in upstate Pennsylvania, and clearly missed it.

Regarding "Dark Lady," Patterson used to write straight up legal thrillers ala Grisham, Turow, and Steve Martini. He tended to take a minor character from one book, then make another book about that particular character. I am an absolute sucker for that genre. Later, Patterson got into developing some characters who became POTUS and Chief Justice respectively to tackle the issues of abortion and gun control, among others. He became a big Clinton buddyas I recall. In the "Dark Lady" book, my recollection is he raised interesting issues on the subject in question without coming down on a particular side. Later on, he started clearly pushing a specific political point of view.They made at least two of his early books into a television mini-series.

Dark Lady is, primarily, a legal courtroom drama murder trial, but the motive had everything to do with the politics of municipal government and sports stadium financing. It is an easy read and I bet you could get it used via Amazon for just over the cost of shipping.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Jed, I'll check that out. I don't care much for Grisham (liked The Firm, but nothing after that), but Turow impresses me (Presumed Innocent was great). For whatever reason, many authors start to get very political as they get more established. Too bad, it often ruins their books.

In terms of the review, that was one of our earliest posts and I'm not sure too many people were reading the site at that point -- plus, I get the feeling a lot of people said, "Rollerball, wasn't that some crappy 1970s movie?" and ignored it. Oh well. . . the life of a blogger. :-(

Writer X said...

I'm glad I read this after watching the Super Bowl. ;-) Even so, I'm still slightly depressed that football season is over. I love it but, yeah, it's not what it used to be. That's for sure. I have a friend whose son is one of those high school players you're talking about--he's 16 and has an agent and a publicist. They even gave him a makeover! It's pretty ridiculous. It's clearly become more of a business than a game.

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, So you're seeing first hand some of the "flow down effects" of the NFL. My concern, as I put at the end of the article, is that we are allowing too much of our economy/our political system go the same route, and that as the Goldman Sachs' of the world twist and warp our government, the negative effects will flow down to every level.

Tennessee Jed said...

Writer X - heck coach "Lame" Kiffen formerly of Tennessee and now of USC just offered a scholarship to a 13 year old kid! He was just on with Martha McCallum

Writer X said...

TennJed, that is sick. I blame the parents as much as the coach/system. Who's looking out for this kid? He's just a kid!

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X and Jed, Too many people can justify anything to themselves. If they see a better future by selling their kids to the NFL, they'll do it. Seriously, what kind of parents let their kids take steroids or hold them back in school on the one in a million chance they could make it into the NFL?

People lose all sense of right and wrong when big money is as stake.

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