The Whence of Football’s Death Knell

The conversation is getting louder and louder, out-noised only by the continued roar of the throngs of fans who fill stadiums, sports bars and living rooms to watch the next big game.

That louder and louder conversation is the one asking the big questions about football—about its safety, about its hyper-masculine culture, about its financial excesses, and about the integrity of its players, coaches, and administrators.

These conversations are desperately needed, and their amplification is generally to the good. Since writing Touchdowns for Jesus and Other Signs of Apocalypse: Lifting the Veil on Big-Time Sports I have noticed several things about the direction the conversation seems to be moving. Some of these tendencies I am noticing concern me very much, not just as someone who is intimately tangled up with the game of football, but also as someone who cares about justice, equity, and life-giving transformation.

So much of what is feeding the football machine has to do with one thing: POWER. And I don’t hear a lot of people talking about power. Most notably, I don’t hear a lot of people wanting to get beyond the obvious layers of power in big-time football, to look at the most acute patterns of abusing power.

People seem more interested in taking punitive measures against guilty individuals than taking a look beneath the surface.

And there are times when I feel like the people who are given the microphone for suggesting reform are a bit like asking the fox who is guarding the hen house what reforms are needed to make the hen house safer for the hens. It is pretty obvious that the fox has a vested interest in the hen house not being safer for the hens.

For instance, the question of who let air out of the Patriots footballs is less important than following the trail of who benefits, who sets the tone for inequities to flourish? Deflating balls may just be a clue to bigger, deeper, more disturbing currents of power in big-time sports. I can say without reservation that those who are dishonest do prosper in the world of big-time sports. There are countless examples.

It should come as no surprise that the wicked prosper in something where the payoff is so big. Can you think of any societal example of a money-making machine on a scale with football in which there is not corruption? (If you can, please let me know).

So, the thing I want to hear more of is not the repetitive indignation about that there are problems in football, I want to hear some passion around why it is we want to do better in the face of these problems. Why do we want to “get it right” when it comes to football? And who do we hope is served the most by the improvements? What is really at stake in this conversation about big-time sports? Ethics? Human rights? Fairness? Justice? Honesty?

I am not sure we’ve gotten to the bottom of what it is that is really hitting a nerve for American culture these days with our collective disapproval about football’s problems. The nerve hit for me has been activated for a long time now in this business. It is the nerve that is pained by how easy it is for those with power to abuse it and get away with it. And that pain is rendered more chronic by the sadness I feel around how many who benefit from those abuses are either oblivious to them or choose to look the other way while they enjoy the spoils.

For power to be wrested from the few in a system where abuses are commonplace, it (power) has to be shared with those who have the least in a structure that must be changed as well. You can’t just change who makes decisions, you have to alter how decisions are made.

And who is going to make sure that kind of change happens? Surely not the foxes who say they just want what’s best for the hens.

Symbolic gestures of including a few players and a sprinkling of coaches who aren’t the million dollar makers in these conversations are a tired relic of a strategy that doesn’t change anything. Those gestures just help keep people appeased and working hard in hopes that they might someday make it to the top. Unfortunately most who make it to the top often realize that they won’t stay there long if they challenge the system that has so handsomely rewarded them. So once they have the power to speak out, they often fall silent and keep the machine working as is.

Football is the quintessential team sport, yet its success is more and more fueled and fed by individual gain, not shared success. Football asks people to give it everything they have for the team, but only some benefit from all that is generated by the blood, sweat, and tears of many.istock football team

This violation of the very heart and spirit of what football is about is what will be the death knell of this iconic American sport. Until the team approach is what drives the machine, football will continue to be led by the nose in the service of those whose necks are never on the line.

Maybe that violation says more about America these days than anything. Our most chronic disease is our unchecked individualism. And the sport that was born to tell us anything is possible when everyone does their part on a team, is showing us the tell-tale signs of its common good being vanquished by the power of greed and personal gain.

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