A society that has declared permanent war on the world (the so-called “Global War on Terror”) needs to instill its people with martial values and the NFL has proven a reliable conduit. But the NFL’s ideological function, rarely commented on, increasingly conflicts with its profit-making as a multi-billion dollar enterprise.
Super Bowl XLIX is over, so we can reflect on what the NFL means in American life. It has long provided lessons in how to be a man, how to be a worker and how to live your life. Above all it’s a gigantic money machine, seeking maximum profit.
Every game is filled with heroic stories about the players, our latter-day gladiators. The common theme is the players have overcome adversity to report for work, despite the job’s punishing nature. Trauma, injury, medical catastrophe, personal crisis, nothing is reason enough not to report to work and “play the game.” Labor is the essential commodity, so we must all be instilled with a zeal for labor. The work ethic, a central myth of capitalism, is a major lesson of every game. NFL players’ salaries and iconic status rest on their demonstrating this every bruising week.
The job is to violently seize territory, essentially a military function. George Carlin, one of our sharper social commentators, describes how the quarterback, “known as the field general, utilizes short bullet passes and long bombs … to punch holes in the enemy’s defensive lines.” The violence of the game has also been criticized for frequent brain concussions among players.
Like for soldiers, the violence inevitably spills into the football players’ personal lives, and it has brought the league great trouble. Intimate partner violence became an issue this season when Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice was caught on video dragging his unconscious fiancee Janay Palmer from an elevator.
This became a dilemma for the league, which has been trying to enlarge its market by attracting female spectators. Rice’s brutality repelled women. At the same time, Rice was a celebrity player and the stars’ images must be constantly burnished. Rice was not the first player accused of domestic violence, only the first whose offense was recorded. At first the league lightly tapped his wrist with a 2 game suspension from play. Women’s groups were outraged and demanded a stronger response from the league. Rice was indefinitely suspended after a second video emerged showing the assault inside the elevator. The NFL (haplessly) continues to try to improve its image among women. A Super Bowl ad portrayed a woman trapped by her abuser calling 911, to show the NFL “cares.”
Critics complain that the NFL treats domestic violence as merely an “image problem” and have called on the league’s executive director, Roger Goodell, to resign. But any director will face the same basic problem: continuing the NFL’s ideological preparations for war while operating as a money-making venture.