NFL 2020: Football in the Time of Trump, COVID-19, and Mass Protests
Brett Siegel / University of Texas at Austin


Kaepernick sign
A protestor marches with a Colin Kaepernick sign

While the NFL continues to occupy a dominant role in American popular culture, the contested social and political climate of the Trump era has threatened to destabilize a seemingly impervious brand. The league’s attempts to contain the fallout from player protests in particular provide a crucial space to examine the ideologies of White supremacy that undergird the Trump presidency and the MAGA movement more broadly. For a sport run by an overwhelming majority of White executives, owners, and coaches but played by 70% Black athletes, the NFL’s performative forays into social justice have thus far rung false, eliding the league’s crackdown on player activism and blackballing of Colin Kaepernick, who famously took a knee during the National Anthem to protest police brutality and unpunished murders of Black people.[ (( Adam Rugg, “Incorporating the Protests: The NFL, Social Justice, and the Constrained Activism of the ‘Inspire Change’ Campaign,” Communication & Sport (2019), https://doi.org/10.1177/2167479519896325. ))]

If the early years of the NFL/Trump relationship are best represented by the president’s outrage over the Take a Knee protests, then the latter years demand a discussion of COVID-19 and the widespread protests that followed the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. While these events are still unfolding, it is worthwhile to pause and analyze this moment as an extension, and in many ways a culmination, of the past four years. As many have pointed out, we are grappling with two pandemics that disproportionately affect Black individuals and communities: the novel Coronavirus and the ongoing effects of systemic, institutionalized racism. Both are global in scope, yet the Trump administration’s response to each has created unique dangers and conditions for public outrage and uprising. Because the portrayal of the NFL as an exemplar of nationalism has been so profoundly challenged and complicated by Trump era politics, its response to this historical moment must be unpacked.[ (( Thomas P. Oates, Football and Manliness: An Unauthorized Feminist Account of the NFL (University of Illinois Press, 2017). ))]


Trump speech
Trump has encouraged NFL owners to fire players who kneel during the National Anthem

A symbolic arena that is constructed and imagined as a testament
to American ideals and values, the NFL is often celebrated as proof of a
post-racial meritocracy. Of course, these myths have been ruptured before, but
the dissonance between what the NFL says it stands for and what it actually
represents has rarely been so stark and significant. The strategies by which
America’s most powerful sports league contains resistance and neutralizes dissent
are so woven into the fabric of everyday life that 2020’s unprecedented
disruption of routine poses a threat and an opportunity.

With the arrival of the Coronavirus and shelter-in-place orders that kept much of the country confined to their homes, the 2020 NFL Draft offered an especially valuable chance to reach a rare and elusive mass audience. With the cancellation of seasons currently underway, media outlets no longer had a reliable stream of topical sports content, and despite the airing of the WNBA Draft only days earlier, the NFL Draft was presented and discussed as the first and only live sporting event worth mentioning since the virus took hold. Airing on ABC, ESPN, and the NFL Network, the Draft broke records for ratings and advertising costs and allowed the NFL to capitalize on the sudden dearth of sports programming. Signifying the importance of this particular draft, the event began with a montage designed to speak to the historical moment and frame football’s central place within it.




The opening to the 2020 NFL Draft

Narrated by Peyton Manning, the intro transitions from black-and-white images of empty city streets and formerly bustling establishments to assorted clips of health care workers and patients bravely responding to the threat of the virus with courage and compassion. The NFL’s tribute to “Hope” positions sports, and especially football, as the ultimate goal, the light at the end of the tunnel, the reward for our “solidarity… sacrifice, and service to the greater good.” If the NFL Draft typically carries the hope of improved teams and future success, this NFL Draft offered hope that we could soon restore some semblance of normalcy to our interrupted lives. Enduring the virus as “one football family” thus conflates the containment of a public health crisis with the triumphant return of sports. Reclaiming the comfort and pleasures of our daily lives, as signified by the NFL season starting on time, is thus imagined as a victory for the American people. Indeed, Manning invokes a “future of full arenas, full voices, free reign to gather, to feel the power of football together, because that will mean life is back to normal for us all.”

Leading the charge in getting “back to normal,” Trump has been banking on the appearance of conquering the virus and saving the economy, however fallacious, as part of his reelection bid. The disconnect between the fear of a raging pandemic and the impulse to reopen America and “liberate” its citizens from the supposed tyranny of the quarantine is an underlying tension that national media events like the NFL Draft have sought to gloss over and resolve. Depending on the audience, the promise of football may serve as a justification for responsibly staying home and stopping the spread, or for resuming life as normal and accepting that many will die. In the weeks following the Draft, the discourse coming from many conservative commentators shifted firmly to the latter position, arguing that everyday dangers like the common flu never kept us locked up inside before, and insisting that the inevitable consequences of re-opening are worth the risk to exercise our rights as Americans. Because the economy—whether that translates to getting football back or even just getting a haircut—has been deemed more important than protecting human life, it is no wonder that Trump’s committee on re-opening the economy includes NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and owners Robert Kraft and Jerry Jones. Pretending the virus is in the past and football is the future can be viewed as the latest strategy in making America “great again.”[ (( David J. Leonard, Playing While White: Privilege and Power On and Off the Field, (University of Washington Press, 2017). ))]

If the NFL Draft offered an opportunity for the league to maintain the status quo and consolidate its unifying role in American popular culture, the eruption of nationwide protests in May and June illuminated once again the fragility of this project. In its first public statement, the league that made a concerted effort to steer its labor force “past kneeling” and resume business as usual predictably failed to grapple with its own complicity in perpetuating the injustices protestors have organized to expose and demolish. Apparently fearing the wrath of Trump-supporting owners and fans, the NFL’s initial response not only omitted any reference to race, racism, or police brutality (much less the murder of Black people by police); it also scrapped the phrase “Black Lives Matter” altogether. Vague calls to action evaded any specific language that could be mistaken for actually taking a stand, and perhaps the most glaring takeaway was the NFL’s unwillingness to engage with its own recent history of stifling peaceful protests against these very issues, along with its silencing—and in Kaepernick’s case, ousting—of the players involved.


NFL statement
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s statement drew significant criticism

The NFL was not alone in releasing a non-committal, tepid, and tone-deaf statement about the protests and the horrific murders that ignited them. However, because the league represents one of the most visible examples of stratified Black labor and White management in the United States, its decision to elide any acknowledgment of, or relationship to, systemic violence against Black people stands out. A handful of Black NFL players released a video in response to the league’s non-statement, proclaiming that any one of them could be the next George Floyd and imploring the NFL to “condemn racism and the systematic oppression of Black people.” Only after some of the league’s most popular players effectively forced the commissioner’s hand did Roger Goodell declare that “Black Lives Matter” and admit wrong in preventing players from peacefully protesting. While it is tempting to applaud Goodell and fellow “respect the flag” enthusiast Drew Brees for their changes of heart, it is also fair to deem such performances of solidarity-in-hindsight “too little too late,” especially when Colin Kaepernick’s name remains conspicuously absent from these public epiphanies.

We should be critical of the timing and motives of self-proclaimed allies coming out of the woodwork after quietly reaping the benefits of White supremacy for so long. However, the fact that NFL controversies have been deployed as political talking points for the duration of Trump’s presidency makes the recent rhetorical shift, however superficial and disingenuous it may seem, a significant moment. After Trump tweeted about Goodell’s video and Brees’ apology, Brees addressed the president in an Instagram post, stating: “We must stop talking about the flag and shift our attention to the real issues of systemic racial injustice, economic oppression, police brutality, and judicial & prison reform.” That two of the more prominent supporters of Trump’s anti-kneeling agenda have appeared to jump ship indicates that the optics of not acknowledging White supremacy, anti-Black racism, and state-sanctioned police violence are starting to look riskier than engaging with these issues outright. The NFL has proven time and again that it would be more comfortable moving past kneeling, protesting, quarantining, or anything else that might put people over profits, and only time will tell if its actions will change alongside its words.



Image Credits:

  1. A protestor marches with a Colin Kaepernick sign
  2. Trump has encouraged NFL owners to fire players who kneel during the National Anthem
  3. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s statement drew significant criticism


References:




“Everyone’s Got Theories”: Examining the NFL’s Ratings Problem
Brett Siegel / University of Texas at Austin

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell

The National Football League (NFL) has a ratings problem. While the perennial television juggernaut’s 9.7% drop from the previous season appears consistent with overarching trends in the marketplace, the discourses surrounding such a precipitous decline for one of America’s most reliable programming staples warrant further investigation. Grappling with public relations crises involving concussion research, domestic violence cases, player protests, and recent scandals concerning the job responsibilities of cheerleaders, the NFL must increasingly demonstrate its value as both a business enterprise and a cultural institution. As a result, league representatives such as Commissioner Roger Goodell must validate the NFL’s performance as a measurable entertainment property while simultaneously defending its honor as a morally just and virtuous operation. The immense scrutiny of the NFL’s perceived ethical position by a complex web of invested parties—including networks, sponsors, carriers, tech companies, partnering organizations, audiences, and even politicians—complicates the industrial logics that attempt to make sense of and account for dwindling viewership.

Sports programming, and especially professional football, has proven relatively immune to the many pitfalls facing the contemporary television industry. As Amanda Lotz contends, “The value of live televised sports has increased because so little other programming continues to unite comparatively large audiences who watch at an appointed time and remain captive through commercials.” [ (( Amanda D. Lotz, The Television Will Be Revolutionized (New York: New York University Press, 2014): 14. ))] The promise of a guaranteed audience congregating for a national television event still resonates for networks and carriers, who have committed a combined $50 billion for the rights to NFL games through the early 2020s. Despite losing 17% of its average per-game audience since 2015, the league still mustered 37 of the 50 most-watched television programs this year, along with the top two highest-rated programs in Sunday and Thursday Night Football and the most-watched cable program of the year in ESPN’s Monday Night Football.

Monday Night Football

NFL programming has consistently thrived as appointment viewing

Such sustained dominance remains appealing to advertisers, enabling the NFL to withstand the unrelenting fragmentation of the television audience that has accompanied the rise of mobile technologies and the unprecedented proliferation of content. Yet even the league’s apparently ironclad advertising revenue declined 1.2% this year, the result of an increase in makegoods to sponsors anticipating more eyeballs for their commercials. Most notably, the automotive and electronics industries that historically spend the most on NFL ads cut back their spending in 2017. While the Super Bowl on NBC boasted new records for advertising revenue and the price of NFL commercial space continues to escalate, the anxieties surrounding such a glaring ratings slump have at last seeped into the strategies of once-dependable buyers.

League representative are quick to point out that professional football generates considerable activity and engagement beyond the scope of linear television. For instance, Amazon recently secured the rights to two more years of Thursday Night Football, while a five-year $2 billion partnership between the NFL and Verizon will allow smartphone users to stream games whether they are Verizon customers or not. Combined with the stratospheric popularity of fantasy football and a recent Supreme Court ruling that permits states to legalize sports gambling, the destabilization of the traditional television economy only appears to pose a superficial threat to the NFL’s overall brand. However, Commissioner Goodell’s impulse to justify the league’s ratings performance speaks to the sustained and agreed-upon role of these measurements in connoting both current and future success. When asked about the subject on the ESPN talk show Golic and Wingo, he claimed, “I’ll take our ratings any day… I think anybody in sports would say that.” Goodell has frequently shrugged off the NFL’s ratings slide as indicative of broader developments in media technologies, distribution platforms, and related consumption habits, ultimately reassuring critics of the league’s savviness in navigating those trends.

Many analysts have attributed 2017’s dramatic decrease in viewership to the product on the field, citing the failures of large-market teams (the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants, e.g.) and the absence of popular athletes due to injuries (Aaron Rodgers) and suspensions (Ezekiel Elliott) as contributing factors. Responding to pictures that appeared to depict sparsely populated stadiums, Goodell noted the transition of multiple franchises to new cities and fanbases, as well as the inevitable dips in attendance that accompany underperforming teams.

Yet, as the quintessence of what Michael Newman has deemed “ethically contested media,” the NFL must negotiate these day-to-day corporate concerns with the ideological tensions that threaten its brand. [ (( Michael Z. Newman, “Is Football Our Fault?”, Antenna, Sep. 17, 2014, http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2014/09/17/is-football-our-fault/. ))] As Travis Vogan argues, the league’s “immense cultural and economic power is not simply a product of the games it provides… but also its cultural meanings. The sport embodies and articulates characteristics, beliefs, attitudes, and values unique to American history, identity, and everyday life.” [ (( Travis Vogan, Keepers of the Flame: NFL Films and the Rise of Sports Media (UI Press, 2014): 1. ))] Of course, these meanings have proven both dynamic and historically contingent, often illuminating the contested nature of a unified and essential American sensibility that football purportedly represents.

A steady influx of public relations nightmares has challenged the NFL’s vaunted status as a national pastime as well as its presumed invincibility as a ratings powerhouse. For instance, developing research linking tackle football to traumatic brain injuries has revealed the long-term consequences of an organizational culture that emphasizes physical toughness and self-sacrifice no matter the costs. The NFL’s complicity in burying these findings and attempting to discredit those responsible resulted in a $765 million settlement to former players and their families along with a new league mission to demonstrate a commitment to player health and safety. While critics bemoaned the effects of hard-hitting violence on the field, a string of poorly handled domestic violence cases further undermined the NFL’s efforts to flaunt its moral compass. In particular, a mere two-game suspension of Ray Rice proved untenable when video evidence captured the running back punching his girlfriend in the face. The debacle not only instigated a complete overhaul of the league’s Personal Conduct Policy, but also a highly publicized new hire in vice president of social responsibility Anna Isaacson, who was enlisted to implement training and education programs devoted to issues of domestic violence and sexual assault. Observing the NFL’s merchandise, advertising, and charitable initiatives in the context of these brand crises, Victoria Johnson interrogates the relationship between the league’s “cultivation of a broad spectrum of female fans” and the strategic “mitigation of acute public criticism.” [ (( Victoria E. Johnson, “‘Together We Make Football’: The NFL’s Feminine Discourses,” Popular Communication 14, no. 1 (2016): 12. ))] With emerging revelations concerning the labor conditions and expectations of NFL cheerleaders, the league must continue to balance such calculated appeals to a desirable demographic with mounting controversies that cast the league’s gestures of goodwill in considerable doubt.

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NFL cheerleaders have filed discrimination cases against their teams

In a season of plummeting ratings, no incident generated as much speculation and debate as the player protests during the National Anthem. Initiated by Colin Kaepernick in 2016 to draw attention to police brutality against African Americans and other issues of racial injustice, the demonstrations expanded when President Trump referred to those who took a knee as “sons of bitches” and declared that they should be fired for their alleged disrespect of the flag and country. As with the concussion and domestic violence crises, Goodell expressed a desire to move on from the issue and perform the NFL’s sensitivity in accommodating all afflicted parties. After meetings with the NFL Players Association, the league pledged $89 million over seven years to social justice charities. By directing significant contributions to racial equality initiatives, Goodell temporarily extinguished a potential crisis in the same public-facing manner that rule changes and Heads Up Football did for player safety, and that partnerships with NO MORE and Raliance did for domestic violence. However, recent battles over an official anthem policy for the upcoming season indicate that the NFL’s attempts to appear socially conscious will once again clash with the financial imperatives of appeasing powerful owners, skittish sponsors, and disgruntled fans.

The perception that athlete protests have directly resulted in deteriorating viewership heightens the blurring of corporate and ideological responsibilities for a once-untouchable brand. Especially considering Trump’s willingness to intervene in the future of professional football and the intensified discourses about what it should represent for the nation, the NFL’s delicate balancing act has proven increasingly difficult to maintain. Ruminating the league’s conspicuous ratings tumble, Goodell mused, “It’s something that I don’t think there’s a single reason for. Everyone’s got theories.” The fact that everyone has theories about what exactly is plaguing such a ubiquitous media property and resilient cultural institution speaks to the evolving anxieties surrounding contemporary media markets as well as the cultural tensions pervading a highly contested sociopolitical moment. The strategies deployed by an organization still heavily invested in creating media events for a national audience necessitate further examination, especially when that audience proves divided not only in terms of fan loyalties, but also in their appraisal of the league’s ideological orientation and the true meaning of America’s game.

Image Credits:

1. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell
2. NFL programming has consistently thrived as appointment viewing
3. NFL cheerleaders have filed discrimination cases against their teams

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