The NFL has a lot of problems, and they differ depending on who you ask. For example, Jacob Weindling the football fan would tell you that its most pressing issues are concussions, the declining quality of quarterback play, and that 112 years after the invention of the forward pass, the NFL somehow still does not know what is and is not a catch. While Jacob Weindling the politics writer and media observer will tell you that the league’s problems extend far beyond its own game. Charlie Ebersol, who just launched a spring professional football league, succinctly laid out the NFL’s issues in an interview I did with him last year for his 30 for 30 documentary about the XFL. I asked him if he could ever envision a competitor to the NFL, and he said:
I think you’re going to see another one soon. Every 15 years, somebody seems to come along with enough money—the USFL in the early 80s, the XFL in the early 2000s—I think we’re probably due in the next couple of years. I know Tom Brady’s agent right now is trying to launch his own version of a league. At the end of the day, the NFL is so big that it becomes difficult to really create a product that all of its fans want. And also, it’s so mainstream that somebody who comes along with an appropriate counter-cultural movement I think will have a lot of success.
All you have to do is look at the success of the UFC, and what it did over the last 15 years against professional boxing, to realize that there’s clearly space in this media landscape for someone to come along with a new sports league.
The NFL tries to be too many things to too many people, and as a result, they have let their actual product deteriorate to the point where relaunching the XFL isn’t that absurd of an idea given the space being opened by the ineptitude of America’s largest sports league. The NFL has tried to expand its brand beyond the borders of sports, aiming to become “The Shield” while exploiting our nationalism for profit. The problem the NFL now runs into is that modernity has challenged some of the very basic notions of our patriotism (AKA, their business model—the one that has nothing to do with football).
This struggle is exemplified in the recording of a meeting between the owners and players from last October that was just leaked to the New York Times. Here are the relevant highlights from America’s most deranged group of sports owners:
— Roger Goodell, the least respected commissioner in sports not named Gary Bettman, opened the session saying “let’s make sure we keep this confidential.” Whoops.
— There was some rational thought brought to the meeting by Patriots owner/Trump supporter Robert Kraft. He pointed to an “elephant in the room: kneeling,” saying, “The problem we have is, we have a president who will use that as fodder to do his mission that I don’t feel is in the best interests of America. It’s divisive and it’s horrible.”
— Philadelphia Eagles owner/Trump critic Jeffrey Lurie said “We’ve got to be careful not to be baited by Trump or whomever else. We have to find a way to not be divided and not get baited.”
— Buffalo Bills owner Terry Pegula mirrored the panicked, confused reputation his team has earned on the field, seemingly shaking in fear of Trump as he said “All Donald needs to do is to start to do this again. We need some kind of immediate plan because of what’s going on in society. All of us now, we need to put a Band-Aid on what’s going on in the country.”
— Jacksonville Jaguars owner/only nonwhite owner in the room Shahid Khan retorted, “All the damage Trump’s going to do is done.”
— Houston Texans owner Bob McNair, who compared all NFL players to prison inmates and nearly sparked a walkout amongst his own team last season, spouted some wholly expected nonsense, telling the players to stop kneeling: “You fellas need to ask your compadres, fellas, stop that other business, let’s go out and do something that really produces positive results, and we’ll help you.”
— Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, who said his players would be standing for the anthem last month before quickly backtracking on the statement the following day, proposed a “march on Washington” led by NFL players and owners. Yes. Really.
— Stephen Ross also invoked Martin Luther King Jr.’s Selma march, Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank quoted Thomas Paine, and New York Giants owner John Mara said “We have a chance to do something monumental.”
These 32 guys are made of 80% water, 20% their own farts.
Read those bullet points again, do you see any semblance of a plan from some of the most powerful men in America? There is none. I mean, these guys can’t even agree what a freaking catch is, so I guess it’s completely unreasonable to expect them to understand the nuance of America’s issues with race. This is a league run by wealthy white men, played mostly by black men, and consumed largely by white people. That dynamic is practically guaranteed to create tension in a country borne out of a genocide and centuries of slavery. Bills owner Terry Pegula perfectly encapsulated the pure panic felt by his comrades with this unintentionally hilarious line about the NRA:
“For years we’ve watched the National Rifle Association use Charlton Heston as a figurehead. We need a spokesman.”
Former wide receiver Anquan Boldin replied that it’s important to let “people know it’s not just the players that care about these issues, but the owners, too.” The NYT’s account of Pegula’s response to Boldin is the purest example of where these guys’ heads are at (other than wedged firmly up their own asshole):
Pegula didn’t address Boldin’s point except to add that it would be important for the spokesman to be black. (None of the N.F.L.’s 32 owners are black.)
“For us to have a face, as an African-American, at least a face that could be in the media,” Pegula continued, “we could fall in behind that.”
If you were wondering why Colin Kaepernick doesn’t have a job, this is why. He’s the wrong kind of black messenger for these white folk. Kneeling during the anthem revealed how childish and trivial our political debates are, and we are currently enduring the growing pains of a maturing populace. Instead of addressing the players’ contention that Kaepernick is clearly good enough to play in the NFL, so therefore he is getting blackballed over his views, the owners focused on the bad press they have had to endure as a result of the political debates enveloping the league.
It’s notable that the NBA did not experience the same level of protest this year. The league is similarly dominated by African Americans who publicly espouse the same concerns as NFL players like Eric Reid and Colin Kaepernick. Not to mention, they also get to operate under the cover of the league’s best player—LeBron James—being the most politically vocal sports superstar since Muhammad Ali. Contrasting the two leagues indisputably proves that some of the protest against institutional racism in the NFL is directed towards the owner’s boxes. Players in the NBA are free to express their personalities, while the NFL prefers that their employees function more like androids than humans. The best quarterback in the NFL, Aaron Rodgers, told Mina Kimes that even he feels like his speech is inherently restricted by the NFL. Per ESPN:
Rodgers has said he envies the NBA’s culture, which enables athletes to speak more freely about social issues. “The guys who are most vocal in the NBA are the best players,” he says. When I point out that he obviously falls into that category for the NFL, he says he believes that he can say what he wants but that it has to feel “authentic.” He mentions that he’s interested in taking on a role in the players’ union (he used to be a players’ rep), leveraging his unique position to strengthen their cause.
I ask him why he thinks the NFL is more restrictive than the NBA, and he points to the structural differences between the sports: specifically, the absence of guaranteed contracts in football. ”[In the NFL], if you’re on the street, you’re not getting paid unless you have some sort of bonus that goes into another year. So there’s less incentive to keep a guy, which gives you less job security. Less job security means you’ve got to play the game within the game a little tighter to the vest,” he says. “Part of it has a really great nature to it — being a good teammate, being a professional — the other part is not being a distraction. And I use ‘distraction’ as more of a league term.”
The NFL is the most popular league in America, and it reflects our culture. “Distractions” are the chief concern of league executives, but the definition of a “distraction” is completely under the control of those in power. For example, All-pro defensive end Leonard Little played for five more years after getting caught a second time drunk driving—pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter the first time—while Colin Kaepernick’s career as a starting quarterback lasted just five seasons.
These protests are partially intended to demonstrate how the poisonous aspects of the American psyche manifest in political decisions that literally cost lives. We have the power to change our reality, but until the league understands that it is complicit in the “media problem” as described by the hapless Bills owner, then it will never be able to address the core grievances of its employees. This leaked recording of a tense meeting between players and owners doesn’t make it sound like the NFL has any near-term hope of solving one of its most intractable problems, so maybe it will direct its energies in a more realistically productive direction, like finally figuring out what the hell a catch is.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.