Football has been my favorite sport for many years. Some of my fondest memories are of going with my Dad as an 8 year old to high school football games he officiated on weekends; and for close to a 20 year stretch I hardly missed a home game at the Stadium to see the Jets. I played a little in high school and caught two touchdown passes on the day my JV high school team won its first game in three years for our small Catholic school – it was a thrill I still think about over 30 years later. There are few things to me that are as graceful as an airborne receiver making a diving catch with his body extended in a way the defies reality, or the fluidity of a running back running making tiger-like moves with agility, sheer power and stamina. I will even stop on the side of a road to watch a high school or amateur game.
However, I find the game as it is presented today by the NFL holds less and less favor to me. Not so much because of the game itself, though my enjoyment has been greatly impacted by the revelations of the Frontilne report “League of Denial,” but because it has been overshadowed by its caretakers’ decisions to militarize and corporatize almost every aspect of its presentation. The corporatization of football as a commodity to sell advertising is at the heart of the NFL today, it’s the engine room of a capitalistic society that demands profit over people every time. All manner of commercial ads, from beer to cars to fast food to banks, bombard the viewer throughout.I have come to loath consumerism, and it is impossible to separate it from the game.
Far more dangerous than the corporatization is the collusion with the military to neatly weave this creepy fascistic tapestry of nationalism, the military and football. If it makes you shudder to see old newsreels of stadiums full of Germans in the 1930’s pledging their fealty to the Homeland, it’s not very far off when multiple times during the Super Bowl one watches and listens to the many choreographed moments of militaristic and nationalistic imagery and theater resulting in orgiastic, ritualistic and ecstatic fervor. At the core of both events are notions of national superiority, false pride, violence and fear. George Carlin’s classic piece “Baseball vs Football” cleverly describes the infatuation with military language, culture and names. “The quarterback aka field general,” has to be “on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defense, hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy, in spite of the blitz, even if he has to use the shotgun,” “with short bullet passes and long bombs he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing his assault with a sustained ground attack.”
The most obvious change has been in the Super Bowl Growing up I can’t recall holiday-like gatherings with feasts bigger than Thanksgiving and major, big-scale Hollywood production sets, not until the 80’s (yeah, that decade which was the worst culturally, politically and musically). Now every Monday Night game is a spectacle, as are each playoff game. And to think, the NFL made $10 billion this year. How are they considered a non-proft business? It is the same kind of mockery of Exxon/Mobil paying no taxes, or subsidizing farms not to harvest crops, or not taxing all financial transactions. When will the jig be up? We’ve been screwed, by a system run of, by and for the plutocrats.
Even the stadiums themselves have become high altars to consumerism. They feel like malls first, playing fields second. Shea Stadium, or whichever bank or corporations bought the rights for its name which I refuse to use, has become a vile and ugly faux heritage-style stadium. Being there twice when there wasn’t a game is when you see it in its nakedness. They’re now McStadiums, a place whose only purpose seems to be that from which to hang as many corporate banners as can be affixed. The last 20 years have seen many new stadiums, and for the most part they’ve conformed to this crass setup, with few exceptions. A seamless flow from shopping mall, to franchise food to sports stadium. Shop and eat, repeat. Shop and eat, repeat. A full stomach and an empty head, ready to be filled with advertisements.
Which makes sense. You’re no longer there to just watch a ballgame. You’re also there to shop, which in contemporary America means your ultimate civic duty. That’s as much as the last President said,, in response to 9/11. He went even further, offering specificity in a refrain familiar to any who watched football in the 80’s. That era could have been the beginning of the end, when we had to endure the banality of a player – engaged in the biggest battle of his career, being watched by hundreds of millions around, look into the camera and say “I’m going to Disneyland.” It’s surprising the team uniforms don’t yet have corporate logos on them like they do in Europe. Perhaps we shall hear I the not-too-distant future Al Michaels say, “This fourth down is being brought to you by All-State.”
So it’s no surprise that NFL franchises operate the way Corporate America does: if you don’t give us tax-free investment we’re gonna take our ball somewhere else. Corporations in all fields of business use this canard(see Boeing in Seattle now – which surely will get no mention on Sunday – and dozens and dozens of other companies). Threaten to move the operation to where there’s an offer of tax breaks and cheap labor. The American way is to depress worker wages and be rewarded with a windfall of money from a desperate small cities willing to fork over local tax money. It’s another form of outsourcing,; the only thing different is that the greedy monomaniacal businessmen owners can’t take the Patriots or the Redskins to Bangalore or Ho Chi Minh City. The one bright spot is the Green Bay Packers, who are owned by the people of the small city in Wisconsin, and not by some vainglorious .01%er looking to dabble in football for a little fun.
This Sunday I will at some point be thinking of how green with envy Leni Reifenstahl and Joseph Goebbles would be over the spell the NFL has cast over the American people. The mass indoctrination of American nationalism ranks for me as one of the most dangerous developments of the NFL. With this help from the NFL, non-stop warfare around the globe, corporate fealty and a lemming-like culture of consumerism is made easier.
The NFL, the tv networks and corporate America cultivate this fascistic union by weaving together American nationalism, consumerism and an obsession with the military all throughout the game. Every few minutes the announcers are telling you what the tv program is for the rest of the week (“Don’t miss tonight on Fox —-“), the ads come pouring in after every kickoff, change of possession, scoring play, carefully crafted to make you think of something you had no interest in or to gently nudge you to a favorable feeling for a product brand (allegedly the banks have been the biggest spenders this year… cue sympathetic music, video clips of diverse, multi-cultural people cooperating, gleaming shots of progress, etc – all from Goldman Sachs, who led the way in the financial meltdown). There will be a great attempt by the banks to makeover their image and the NFL is all too happy to oblige.
The screen will be filled with glittering images of giant American flags, fireworks, military flyovers and of course, multiple shots of military personnel. David Zirin of the Nation watches the Super Bowl every year with guys from the Iraq Veterans Against the War. “As the troops said over and over again, ‘this is about exploiting the soldiers for the purpose of selling the war.’” He also notes that the commercials “depend very heavily on selling women’s bodies.” The problem, he says, is that “you can’t separate the camera lingering on Kim Kardashian’s body to sell some product or another, and then the shots of the troops. It’s all sort of woven together in one large tapestry that says ‘Join the Army, sex, Rock n Roll, the Super Bowl, flyovers. It’s the same way you can’t separate Top Gun from Tom Cruise getting to sleep with Kelly McGillis. It’s all the same package. “ Even though I reflexively mute every commercial, including the in-between commercials from announcers which are cleverly thread throughout the broadcast, it is still pretty overwhelming.
The story of Pat Tillman should be remembered here too, because his tragic death was a result of that nefarious alliance . He met his demise literally in the crosshairs between football and the Army. Here was a dynamic, intelligent, well-liked standout defensive back for the Arizona Cardinals., who was killed by “fratricide” in Afghanistan. But that’s not what the Army wanted reported. They concocted a more “heroic” story, because they wanted to use him as the patriotic poster boy for the war. His family wouldn’t accept the company line and despite being stonewalled by every rank in the government concluded finally that he was killed by his own men. Tillman had also been reading Noam Chomsky. The ardor with which he left professional football to defend his country after 9/11 was waning as the reality of the war shone clearer to him on the ground. He had arranged to meet with Chomsky upon his return.
Another level-headed guy who also read Chomsky and willingly gave up his chance to be in NYC right now, reveling in the anticipation of playing in the Super Bowl on Sunday, is John Moffitt . He was playing for the 8-1 Denver Broncos when he quit in the second week of November, having had his fill of football and blocking for Peyton Manning who was on an unbelievable streak. He’s also a Buddhist. “I just really thought about it and decided I’m not happy,” Moffit said. “I’m not happy, and I think it’s really madness to risk your body, risk your well-being and risk your happiness, for money… How much do you really need? What do you want in life? And I decided that I don’t really need to be a millionaire.” Similarly, Dave Meggyesy, a linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers in the late 60’s, decided he’d had enough too. Surprise, he was also a highly literate guy who concluded in his prime that football was “institutional violence,” comparing the game to the military, with its obedience to authority, the players plagued by fear and subservience to titillation.
Football, like the Army, depends on malleable, loyal pawns who for the most part don’t really take to literature, philosophy or politics. They’ll take guys like Dexter Manley, the All-Pro defensive end for the Super Bowl champion Washington Redskins who actually never learned to read until he was almost 30 years old. Just pushed through the system for his athletic ability, herded like cattle. In the minds of its superiors the Army and NFL functions more smoothly when the employees are incurious about the world at large. Maybe then they could use a guy like Mitch Daniels to run things. Remember that RW ideologue clown/former Governor of Indiana, who went on to become President of Perdue University? As Governor he attempted to ban Howard Zinn books statewide from all public colleges. Banner of books becomes university president!
I’ve noticed I don’t quite watch football the same way anymore. Especially after the Frontline investiagtions revealed the NFL’s denial and coverup of the epidemic of consussions. Every time a player goes down I used to just get up to grab something to eat or go to the bathroom. Now I imagine a guy closer to agonizing dark depression, memory loss and debilitated physicality in the years to come, the pain his family goes through.
These days it’s hard to see a professional football game as more than it being a vessel upon which Corporatism, Militarism and Sexism can attach their brands to, and not much more.
—Crossposted here on Daily Kos with comments