The NFL is in trouble. What was once the most popular professional sports league in the country has been usurped by the NBA, T.V. ratings are down, youth football participation throughout the country is down, and CTE is becoming an epidemic. To add to their duress, Aaron Hernandez was discovered to have the worst case of CTE ever seen in a twenty-seven year old, and his family is suing the NFL. But lucky for the league, the President of The United States (further revealing his penchant for self-defeating actions) made comments last week that gave the NFL a chance to take the moral high ground as an institution and win back some public favor.
Let’s begin with Aaron Hernandez. Hernandez was a talented tight end for the New England Patriots, and in 2012, he was given the most lucrative contract ever given to a player in his position. But his life was fraught with legal issues, and in 2012 and 2013, he was a suspect in two different murder cases. He was cleared of one charge, but found guilty of the other in 2015 and sentenced to life in prison without parole. Earlier this year, Hernandez hanged himself in his prison cell. Per his family’s request, Boston University’s medical center evaluated his brain during an autopsy and discovered a late stage of chronic traumatic encephalopathy(or CTE) a progressive brain illness caused by repeated trauma to the head— an illness even the most casual observer could relate to football. Early stage CTE can cause impulsivity, social instability, memory loss, and poor judgement, but later stage symptoms are even more severe and include dementia, movement and processing disorders, depression, and suicidality. CTE can have catastrophic results, especially in someone with a propensity toward violence and impulsivity as Hernandez demonstrated throughout his life.
Hernandez is not the only player with CTE to commit suicide. Just off the top of my head, there were two in 2012—Junior Seau and Javon Belcher—and more recently, an Ohio State football player who killed himself after texting his mother that concussions were messing with his head and he couldn’t take it anymore. In July, a study was published that evaluated the donated brains of 110 deceased former NFL players, and thankfully, it found only 99% of them had CTE, showing that maybe it isn’t that dire of an epidemic.
What really matters in all this ‘head injury’ nonsense is hurting the NFL’s business model. What if people stop watching because the sport and their blithe attitude toward safety leads to player death and crime? That would not be good. To the NFL’s great annoyance, the Hernandez family has filed a lawsuit claiming the Patriots and the league failed to “disclose, protect, or treat him from the dangers of” CTE. Bummer for Roger Goodell, but I doubt he’ll be too worried. NFL spokesman Joe Lockhart said: “We intend to contest the claim vigorously. Any attempt to paint Aaron Hernandez as a victim, we believe is misguided. His personal story is complex and does not lend itself to simple answers.” Still, one would think that Hernandez’s story would be a death knell for public perception about NFL safety. Lucky for Goodell, the president overshadowed all of that, and gave the NFL a chance to flex their probity.
At a rally last Friday, Trump said, unprompted, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of those NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag; to say, get that son of a bitch off the field right now…he is fired?” He is referring to what former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick started doing a little over a year ago: sitting on the bench or taking a knee during the anthem to protest racism and police brutality. What Trump espoused he “would love to see happen” actually seems to have happened. Kaepernick is unemployed right now, and it doesn’t seem to be due to his talent. Owners have been staying away from Kaepernick because of his protests, albeit quietly, but sometimes they slip and reveal their hand like Giants owner John Mara who confirmed the reason why he wasn’t hiring Kap, and he added: “All my years being in the league, I never received more emotional mail from people than I did about that issue. If any of your players ever do that, we are never coming to another Giants game. It wasn’t one or two letters…It’s an emotional, emotional issue for a lot of people, more so than any other issue I’ve run into.” The Kaepernick protest was not good for the NFL. In a 2016 poll, Reuters found that 61% of people disagreed with his stance, and 71% of people found his behavior “unpatriotic,” echoing Trump’s complaint.
Kaepernick is far from the only protester, protesting the anthem has been a low-key movement in the NFL since he began it. But this past NFL weekend saw the most widespread demonstrations ever, including some support from owners like Jerry Jones kneeling with his players. Even Roger Goodell came out and said, “The way we reacted today, and this weekend, made me proud. I’m proud of our league.” Is it wrong to ask an almost sinister owner who has not expressed even a semblance of approval for Kaepernick or any other player protesting the anthem until now, whether he’s sincere? Roger Goodell has been in charge of the league for the last ten years, and in that period, he has been behind the NFL’s efforts to deny CTE, their reluctance to improve safety, and the institutional structure that makes NFL contracts the worst in any major sports league. But the bottom line has skyrocketed, and Goodell and the other NFL owners are raking it in to the detriment of the players, and even the fans (as evidenced by exorbitant prices and a blithe attitude toward making teams better, or even competitive). So it is truly amazing that Roger Goodell cares about protesting racism and police brutality, isn’t it? And it’s pretty remarkable that Jerry Jones, a man with the same concerns as Goodell and who has turned the Cowboys into a massively profitable franchised and earned himself a billion dollars in the process, would care enough to kneel with his players.
Or—now this may be surprising, but stick with me—it’s all bullshit, and neither Goodell, nor Jones, nor any of the other owners really cares about what the protest means. But, they do understand that this is a matter of picking sides. Institutional political activism is gaining popularity, and it is only profitable to be on what the public considers the morally right side of an issue. So are they going to side with a deeply unpopular president attacking the NFL for this, or are they going to take an opportunity to use Trump’s direct attack on them to make the protests an NFL™ issue wherein they can take the publically popular side of an issue as an organization? Obviously the latter is the move that makes sense, and they are doing this. In the process, they are covering up all the other reprehensible things they do as a league, to do what the public thinks is the “right” thing now: protesting the president.
This move by the NFL is not an unprecedented one in institutional dealings with politics. In fact, it is exactly this type of thing that fuels public cynicism about political change. The people in power are just going to take the position that proves most profitable to them. We saw examples of that earlier this summer when Google only fired James Damore after public backlash rather than any sense of internal integrity. In another example, Pepsi tried to co-opt the Black Lives Matter movement for their commercial, but people saw right through it, and it didn’t work. I have no doubts that if the profitable move were to support the president, then the NFL would do something about these ‘uppity’ players, but instead, they’re taking advantage of it. Hopefully people see right through the NFL’s fickle integrity. Praising them will only degrade whatever social effect Colin Kaepernick intended.
Photo by Sam Benson/www.flickr.com/photos/politicalpulse/