[Note: There is an obvious response to comparing NFL players and the average laborer - the multiples of minimum wage made by professional athletes. Hold that thought - I will deal with it tomorrow]
The NFL concussion issue is bothering me more than I would have thought and I’m trying to think through its broader implications as a cultural and economic phenomenon, specifically in light of stagnant overall wage growth and also the evolution that technology has wrought on our broader conception of celebrity. The new ethics of watching football, best elucidated by @tanehisi, is a highly personal matter and I have no argument there – its for every fan to decide for themselves. For myself, I will never stop watching the NFL even if I am already questioning the extent of my preoccupation.
The fact that the NFL gained traction in the 50s and 60s well after the sustained popularity of college football, where the players received no salaries, is only one of the many indicators that the players have historically been treated more as equipment than labor. Every book written by insiders, Meggyesy’s Out of Their League, Gent’s North Dallas Forty, highlight the broad inhumanity (and also frequent, offsetting generosity) of coaches and management. The trade-off between pain and fame and the subjugation of personal goals for the good of the team is thus woven into the fabric of the game, a ruthlessness that for many provides more reason to watch.
Major League Baseball provided a strong reflection of the waxing power of organized labor in the 70s, beginning with the Curt Flood case in 1969. The NFL, as a league, has done a far better Reaganesque job of crushing player bargaining power and thus constitutes a worthwhile, through exaggeration, window into the current era of wage inequality. The NFL owners group provides an unequivocal depiction of the 1% as the investors of capital, only with even more stringent (for now) control over labor. I can see no remotely feasible circumstance under which 95% of NFL owners do not support Mitt Romney’s trickle-down, “I got mine” policies as a lot of us, whether we admit it or not, would in their place.
If the profit-oriented incentives of league owners are easily intelligible no matter what the issue, the mindset of huge segment of fans is much, much less so. The key factor here is that I’m a Detroit Lions fan, bred in the bone. One would think that the Rust Belty Lions fandom would, along with Browns and Steelers supporters, side vehemently and overwhelmingly with players and the NFLPA with respect to player safety and salary growth. Stunningly, this does not seem to be the case. My impression from Twitter is that Lions’ fans are divided on cases like that of Cliff Avril who is currently semi-holding out while negotiating a new long-term contract. More interestingly, the fans that do not support Avril’s position are angry, enough to tweet “get to work you ungrateful jackass” to a complete stranger who, if so inclined, has the physical tools necessary to pummel them into pink mist.
Initially mystified by this seemingly self-defeating outrage, I’ve come to credit the Internet and the marketing success of the NFL for much of it. The 24 hour coverage on the NFL Network, CNNSI, the amazing new camera angles, the (frequently abused) generosity of the players on Twitter, all of these allow for fans to become fully immersed in their favorite game. This addiction, however, is completely sanitized and carefully designed for your consumption. As the Last Psychiatrist is fond of saying, “If you’re reading/watching, its for you.” My hair stands on end when before a big game the Steadycam and audio capture the ecstatic, warrior scream of the physically-colossal Ndamukong Suh as he runs out of the tunnel. There are no cameras, however, documenting the poor bastards living in storage lockers after being cut from the practice squad, unable to hold a job because of headaches and the spine of IED victim. Importantly, we wouldn’t watch the latter footage if it were available as it is a function of the web culture that we only see the version of reality we want to see. We do not confront, and in the same way an alcoholic is enraged by advice to cut down their drinking, we get pissed and circle the wagons if someone starts chipping away at any of our virtual cocoons.
To some extent, the same phenomenon is present in the broader economy with financial celebrities like Jamie Dimon and Steve Cohen replacing current NFL stars. The pornographic thrill of a BI slideshow of Dimon’s $8 million, rarely-visited Boston townhouse, is enough distract us from the unemployed who, like the suffering ex-NFL players, are unpalatable collateral damage that makes the pornography possible. The technology, combined with careful editing, has offered the seductive, drug-like option of projecting ourselves into a perfected form of the lives of our heroes, athletic or financial, and we have taken too-full advantage.