The NFL is approaching the point where it can no longer maintain the fiction of being a primarily apolitical entity. John Elway’s recent endorsement of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch on letterhead bearing the Denver Broncos’ logo coming on the same day that President Trump brags at a rally in Kentucky that team owners’ fear of his tweets are keeping teams from signing on Colin Kaepernick—whose political activism last season highlight the injustices faced by black Americans made headlines—lays bare the hypocrisy of the league’s alleged apoliticism.
Far from apolitical, the NFL has shown a widespread acceptance for a type of right-leaning political activism. Patriots’ coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady have both been public in their support for Trump. Team owner Robert Kraft was publicly thanked by Trump for his support on Inauguration Day and Kraft has since been spotted on Air Force One. Jerry Jones and Governor of New Jersey Chris Christie have had a long and public friendship, and Jones made the maximum personal financial contribution to Christie’s 2016 presidential run. One of the most direct examples of conservative political action in recent NFL history came from Tim Tebow’s 2010 commercial for Focus on the Family, an organization that promotes anti-abortion policies.
But no one said they believed Tebow had a right to his opinion while warning that he should be mindful of the consequences. There was no discussion about whether Tebow was creating locker room discord with his commercial. Kaepernick’s decision to wear clothing with specific political imagery as part of his protest drew much greater outrage than Brady’s decision to have a “Make America Great Again” hat in full view of the cameras during an interview—despite both being political statements. Elway can outright endorse a Trump nominee on letterhead that bears the logo of his team, and the possibility that he will face even a fraction of the kind of professional consequences that Kaepernick has as a result of his protest during the national anthem are slim to none.
Of course, the NFL’s politics are not just limited to the league’s hypocrisy toward its various employees and owners for engaging in partisan politics. The structure of the league itself betrays the NFL’s ideology. Structured around the billionaire team owners making as large a profit as possible, it is in their interests that Roger Goodell act to maintain owner profits above all else. Despite pleas to “stick to sports” among some, the way the NFL is organized makes its politics unavoidable when discussing the nature of the league. This has manifested itself in several ways. The NFL’s longstanding fight against antitrust laws and fierce protection of their own antitrust exemption ensure that if there is broadcast football in the United States they are going to be the one organization to profit.
Another manifestation of this is the way players are exploited in their healthcare. The most obvious example of this is the growing discussion and dereliction of player health when it comes to CTE. As knowledge about CTE and how it has affected past and present players increases, the health crisis threatens the existence of the league itself. If the NFL’s current actions towards CTE are any indication, capital takes precedence over the health and lives of those players who make the league possible in the first place. The same dynamic plays out in the league’s alleged abuse of painkillers in treating players—abused in such a way as to increase team competitiveness at the expense of players. It is fine for the top levels of the Patriots organization to support Trump because Trump does not seriously threaten the model for the NFL. For an organization that is increasingly existing in the shadow of a health crisis, they could find no better friend than the current administration—whose disregard for regulations and scientific research are compatible with their own attitudes towards player healthcare.
The NFL’s slow response towards confirmed cases and allegations of domestic abuse and sexual assault are again illustrative of the supremacy of capital for the league. The Dallas Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliot faced assault allegations as early as February of 2016—an accusation whose investigation, Roger Goodell admitted in December, was on no time table and in no way prevented Elliot from playing in the 2016 season. That Elliot has proven to be an adept running back for the Cowboys, generating both extensive interest in the team and providing the Cowboys with an enormous merchandising opportunity are not coincidental.
For the NFL’s front office ignoring player safety and antipathy towards even allegations of assault are ultimately acceptable because they do not threaten business. But protesting the existence of police brutality is not. As the Bleacher Report’s Mike Freeman reported, at least one front office executive went as far to say that he would resign before signing Kaepernick.
Part of the reason the tenor in the reaction to his protest has been so vitriolic is because in addition to being on the left-side of the political spectrum Kaepernick’s protest questioned the status quo with regards not only to race and justice, but the kind of patriotism fostered by the NFL. It’s not an accident that his refusal to stand during the national anthem was seen as an attack on service members—even though the object of his protest was the justice system’s failures. As the heavy militarization of any NFL game illustrates—with millions having been paid to the league by the Department of Defense to the NFL in what has been called “paid patriotism”—the league has worked hard to link the idea of football, national identity and the US military. In the context of the NFL, American identity is the military. That Kaepernick’s protesting the status quo as it relates to the justice system for black Americans was interpreted as an attack on American identity—and thus, the armed services—proves how successful the NFL’s linking of the two has been. Not only did the protest raise questions on a national stage about the status quo for black Americans in the justice system, intentionally or not it shined a light on the way the NFL sells national identity.
The league’s pretension towards apoliticism is a deliberate move made to obscure their actual politics which exist to legitimize the billions of dollars the NFL makes each season. The NFL is a creature of the status quo and any protest that questions this status quo is inevitably going to be viewed as threat to the league itself. Therefore, not standing for the national anthem created intra-league controversy but endorsing Trump’s Supreme Court pick on a letterhead bearing the Broncos’ logo is business as usual.