The NFL, the Internet and Economic Inequality

[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.

11 thoughts on “The NFL, the Internet and Economic Inequality

  1. You may have heard this podcast already (Simmons and Chris Nowinski on CTE ) http://espn.go.com/espnradio/play?id=6193890 but it is must-listen.

    There is no doubt that we are reaching peak NFL, largely because the injuries that have gone wilfully ignored in the past are now being dramatically showcased in the media.

    When grown men are blowing holes in their chest with shotguns in a calculated effort to preserved their porous, malignant brains we can’t be overlooking the debilitating nature of repeated head trauma in sports.

    Concussions and blunt-force head trauma are so poorly differentiated by the masses and the media that a thorough understanding of subconcussive force should case significant alarm. While being knocked-out is correctly associated with CTE, subconcussive blunt force is discounted when assessing the severity of long term brain injuries.

    The media is exceedingly obtuse in this regard. Their collective understanding and characterization of the difference between a loss of conciousness and sub-concussive force delivered to the head is grossly inadequate. The key is understanding how head trauma destroys the brain: any physically insult, anywhere on the body, that causes the brain to rattle around & smash the inner walls of our skull similarly harmful. In response to this trauma our brain releases the protein Tau, which remains elevated persistently and can linger for many months depending on the severity of the blow (there is a proportionality here, but the main point is that small impacts can cause release of this harmful protein, which once released is very difficult to get rid of).

    The protein Tau then induces apoptotic pathways (cell death pathways) that cause plaques (holes) in our brain. Its like the scene in Fight Club where Brad Pitt burns Ed Nortons hand. The deleterious effects of head trauma linger because the protein (Tau) is very tricky to deconstruct, and is thus free to inflict damage at will until treated with specificity.

    Understanding this brings me full circle: we are at peak NFL. Its too dangerous. Every play several players are being exposed to subconcussive blunt force head trauma and this ultimately leads to a considerably decreased quality of life. At best, NFL will become boxing. For poor people and savages. At worst it will get sued into oblivion.

    • Interloper says:

      I can definitely see that, but I hope you’re wrong. Left unopposed, the League will kill the sport though in search of short-term profits.

    • kris says:

      UEFA and then FIFA fixed this problem in the early 90s as far as I remember. Many players were retiring early due to ankle and knee injuries.
      They came up with By the Book rules that the referees are obligated to follow.
      For example: Tackle from behind = Yellow card mandatory. 2nd Tackle from behind in the same game = Red card (expulsion) then a disciplinary punishment, like 3 game penalty etc.

      NFL must introduce very tough financial and expulsion penalties like UEFA in case of head to head hits for example.

      • The difference is the sheer physicality of the NFL. American Football is designed to encourage many and repeated head on head collisions (goal line defence? full back blocks? Safety on a crossing wide receiver?).

        We have taken much of the contact out of football (soccer) and the game is arguably better (aesthetically) for it. This is simply not possible in my opinion in American Football. The yards that QBs are putting up through the air over the last few seasons is a sign of things to come if hits are any more strictly regulated.

        One solution might be for the players to downsize. Rugby players are on average slightly smaller and can endure fairly serious collisions without quite as much physical damage for example.
        The problem of course is that the incentives will always encourage each man to be as big as he can be for those hard yards in the trenches.

      • kris says:

        I fear you are right. Actually you made think that any sport that requires protective equipment is nice to watch but stupid to play.

  2. tm says:

    It seems like an increasing percentage of the average American’s life is consumed with hero-worship, whether it be losing oneself in sports or celeb-trash gossip. I think it’s becoming easier to fall into this lifestyle, with super cheap HDTV and twitter, it’s like the smoke piped into a beehive. The end result is a really lazy, complacent population that’s essentially giving up on accomplishing something themselves, and instead putting all interest in being a voyeur. And although it’s probably not intentional by the “powers that be,” its much easier to fleece the public on things that matter when they’re derailed by endless shallow distractions.

    • Interloper says:

      Agree. I think my grandparents were fully aware that Katherine Hepburn movies were escapism, but it seems ppl now expect their lives to be like tv.

  3. [...] is the original post: The NFL, the Internet and Economic Inequality « Interloper Tags: best-elucidated, decide-for, every-fan, highly-personal, its-for, matter-and, nfl, [...]

  4. N says:

    I think I’m in the minority as a lady-reader of your blog. I’m happy to say that I’m learning a lot about sports while also enjoying your ideas on investing/the markets/human nature. I’ve been reading since the very start of it a year ago and used your “Strategy/Execution” post from the end of October to quit my last job (it may have been pretty obnoxious and gauche of me, but also extremely satisfying). So thanks, and keep it up.

    • Interloper says:

      All of this makes me happy. Thanks very much.

      • kris says:

        Quite impressive. You’re trying to help yourself and are helping somebody else on the way. Congratulations.
        I hope you have taken my strong recommendation of not revealing your identity into strong consideration. Ms N, please tell him that…….

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