Just as every crisis presents opportunities for change, every scandal is a moment ripe for reconsidering conventional wisdom.
The NFL’s off-field domestic violence mess has inspired quite a lot of fascinating, long-overdue reflection on the role of a shrewdly marketed business enterprise that has truly made itself a major pillar of our culture, a bona fide secular religion as faith-based in its own way as any church.
Watching the Ray Rice-to-Adrian Peterson et al debacle unfold, with all the pathetic prevaricating of Commissioner Roger Goodell and the league’s sycophantic apologists has reminded me over and over again of the sex-abuse ridden Catholic Church, particularly here in Minnesota, as it is led by another wholly disreputable, discredited leader, Archbishop John Nienstedt. Both entities have wrapped themselves in vestments of impregnable propriety. Both have enabled abuse and both are now conducting “sham investigations”. Here’s Madeleine Baran at MPR on the Archdiocese, and our old friend Keith Olbermann at ESPN.
Likewise, the appalling behavior(s) of their respective employees followed by arrogant, tone-deaf official response now has both institutions in a similar situation, where the faithful — not all, but an influential minority capable of critical thought — are actively reexamining the faith and money they’ve invested in each. A reassessment long, long overdue IMHO.
A couple weeks back I read a terrific piece on the psychological appeal of the NFL for American men. I thought it was posted at Grantland, but damned if I can find it there any now. So, my apologies to the author, who took the power and profanity of the NFL to a higher, significantly more illusion-rattling level, by exploring just what exactly the league is selling.
The bottom-line of a very thoughtful piece is that the NFL, and really football everywhere in modern America, is one of the final, protected realms of unfettered masculinity, where men (and boys aspiring to be “men”) are encouraged and rewarded for performing as men “must” and “should” to achieve success. Obviously, since football is an entertainment this heretofore manly safe room is passed on/marketed as a fantasy for those who can’t play, but embrace it vicariously, feeling and asserting male privilege by adjacency.
Clearly, this line of thinking is way too touchy-feely and psycho-babbly for mass consumption. But the writer continued on to the make the salient point that the contact high men get off football, the wildly successful NFL in particular, isn’t just confined the sad yobs in their Vikings jerseys scraping and bowing to a beaming Zygi Wilf as he leaves the Capitol with a sweetheart deal that stick the rubes with over $800 million in debt by the time the next stadium is paid off.
No. The psychological power of the league’s message also resonates deeply with the smart guys, the suits and politicians who crave the glow of power and success emitted by the league. Recall again local legislators cramming to get in the photo op with Commissioner Roger Goodell when he came to town to deliver his ultimatum to pick up the tab for the Vikings/NFL … or else.
The (very) monied class is no more immune to the adjacency-buzz given off by the NFL than blue collar couch potatoes. The only difference is that the wealthy experience a special tumescence and dampness over the NFL’s vise grip command of its message, market and balance sheet. Association with the NFL, via corporate suites and/or ludicrously over-priced ticket prices and personal seat licenses being a display of status so vital as to be irresistible to any “player” in the game of commerce.
As a matter of status and survival human nature is all about keeping score, and the NFL, until now at least, has asserted and sold unapologetic dominance like very few other cultural institutions … other than organized religions.
The third leg of the league’s marketing magic is of course the sports media, who daily, hourly, minute-by-get-a-life-minute provide free marketing lift for 32 of the wealthiest men in America. The completely routine whoring of some of the most “credible” names in the country and local communities is taking a corrosive beating.
Here’s Stefan Fatsis on the worst offenders. Here’s another, from Dave Edwards at Deadspin. Fatsis makes the always pertinent appointment about the difference between “access reporting”, where one never pisses off the subject at hand and “accountability reporting” which, well, which is something other than PR work. Day-to-day business reporting could do well with a heavy injection of the latter.
As with the Catholic church (and several other ossified religious organizations) this kind of truth-telling and public-shaming is both long overdue and healthy. For cultures to evolve, no institution should be allowed immunity from accountability.
And I say this as a fan of football, pro football in particular. Before the domestic abuse mess I was telling my cousin, a 20-year college football coach, that I was ashamed of how much pro football I watched last season. Not because I felt guilty about getting whipped up over a bunch of steroidal wife beaters and child abusers, but because the game is so entertaining to watch I wasted way too much time watching instead of tending to the weekend honey-do list.
As a television entertainment pro football has pro soccer beat ten ways to one, even with the NFL’s ridiculous glut of commercials. (Soccer will never cut it in the US if a championship game amounts to 90 minutes of tapping the ball back and forth at midfield, “strategizing” for essentially a home-run hitting contest in a vaguely comprehended overtime.)
The primary appeal being the precision and balletic beauty of the passing game, not the “bone crushing” attempted decapitation of receivers stupid enough to run a crossing pattern.
The credulous faithful of both organized religion and pro football may be having a tough time accepting the criminality and gross arrogance of institutions so vital to their sense of personal value, but as the NFL tells a player reeling from yet another concussion, “You’re going to have man up, pal.”