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:




Gender and the Soundscape of Major League Baseball
Kathy Cacace / The University of Texas at Austin

Yankee broadcaster Suzyn Waldman
Pioneering baseball broadcaster Suzyn Waldman in the Yankees booth.

Perhaps the most beloved female presence discussed in Curt Smith’s door-stopper reference on baseball broadcasting, Voices of the Game, is a woman who never existed. Aunt Minnie was improvised in the heat of a game in 1938 by the Pittsburgh Pirates’ first radio announcer Rosey Rowswell. A hard-hit Pirate homer flew past the stands of Forbes Field and, as Smith quotes the broadcast, “Rosey stood up and implored, ‘Get upstairs Aunt Minnie, and raise the window! Here she [the baseball] comes!’ Seconds later to Rowswell’s rear, an assistant shattered a pane of glass; to partisans at home, the broken glass meant Aunt Minnie’s window. ‘That’s too bad,’ Rosey sobbed. ‘She tripped over a garden hose! Aunt Minnie never made it!'” [ ((Curt Smith, Voices of the Game (South Bend: Diamond Communications, 1987): 77.))] Poor Aunt Minnie’s windows were routinely smashed over the course of Rowswell’s career—he once snatched the microphone from Bing Crosby to implore Aunt Minnie to throw open her sash—and over the years a few women in Pittsburgh even claimed to be Aunt Minnie. Fellow Pittsburgh broadcaster Bob Prince insists that women liked the Aunt Minnie home run call “especially—it drew them out as fans.” [ ((Smith, Voices of the Game, 79.))]

Yet Aunt Minnie, however fictional, never spoke a word on the air. Her absent presence typifies the relationship between women and baseball broadcast history. Smith himself omits women’s voices almost entirely from Voices of the Game. He does not discuss Betty Caywood, the first woman hired to do color commentary (as a stunt) in 1964, and dedicates just a dismissive half line to the “shrill-voiced Mary Shane,” the first true female announcer who called half a season alongside Harry Caray in 1977. And while Smith published his book more than 30 years ago, women’s voices remain rare and contentious in baseball broadcasting. Jonathan Fraser Light reports that the first female stadium public address announcer was not hired until 1993, when Sherry Davis had to produce a personal scorebook she had kept for years to prove to the San Francisco Giants that she was qualified for the position. [ ((Jonathan Fraser Light, The Cultural Encyclopedia of Baseball, (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 1997).))] New York Yankees broadcaster Suzyn Waldman was sent feces and used condoms in the mail during the 1980s and 1990s and received so many death threats she had to be protected by stadium security. Jessica Mendoza, former Olympic softball player and first female baseball analyst for ESPN, received abusive and misogynist comments on Twitter from men, including from another sports broadcaster, during her first playoff game in 2015. More than four years later, she still reports having to wait a day and a half after a game for online vitriol to die down so she can check her social media accounts.

Baseball’s soundscape is a crucial facet of the sport’s relationship to gender. It was mediatized through the radio, and this process was spurred at least in part by a desire to speak to (but not through) women during the 1920s and 1930s. Baseball media scholar James Walker found that team owners were initially divided about whether to broadcast games on the radio, believing that it would eat into ticket sales. However, “a few forward-thinking owners saw radio as a positive promotional device that could sell baseball to new customers” who could listen to day games. [ ((James R. Walker, “The Baseball-Radio War, 1931-1935,” in NINE: A Journal of Baseball History and Culture 19, no. 2 (Spring 2011): 53. ))] That audience was women, specifically housewives, and their young children. Radio also provided a template for baseball broadcasts that televised games still hew to closely: a man or small group of men filling the long stretches between moments of excitement with oral storytelling. Though the booth remains a nearly impenetrable audio enclave for women, a relatively recent effort to enliven and personalize the game has given female voices an unlikely point of entry into baseball’s greater soundscape. [ ((Broadcasting may be changing more quickly at the minor league level. This April, Melanie Newman and Suzie Cool became the first all-female booth to call a game.))]

Rockies’ outfielder Charlie Blackmon explains fan behavior around his walk-up song.

Walk-up music is a short audio clip chosen by a (home team) player and piped through the stadium as he approaches either home plate for his at bat or the pitcher’s mound. The origins of walk-up music are fuzzy as stadium organists have performed clever, punny songs for select players for decades, but the practice became widespread in the 1990s. Walk-up music is frequently a song meant to put a player in a confident mindset for a stressful situation—hard rock remains a popular choice—but its function as individual speech makes it a more interesting phenomenon than it may first appear. A player’s song may change throughout the season, for example, in response to an offensive slump or current events. Ultimately, the choice of music offers the rare chance during a team sport for a player to express something of his personality and point of view. In this way, walk-up music becomes a moment of communication and intimacy between fans and players.

Mets fan holds up glove in stands
Mets player Yoenis Cespedes frequently used the beginning of “Circle of Life” from The Lion King soundtrack as his walk-up music. In this photo taken at a game in April 2017, I captured the common fan behavior of hoisting something (here a glove, but frequently a hot dog, a helmet full of nachos, or one’s progeny) toward the sun like Simba as Cespedes approached the plate.

Major League Baseball keeps a database of current walk-up music choices. As of this article’s publication, thirty players chose songs with audible female vocals. I have casually monitored this database for a few seasons and have observed a gradual upward trend in female vocalists, and suspect that these thirty selections are an all-time high. While this still represents only 4% of active players, each player might take the mound several times in a game and teams like the Dodgers and Brewers have more than one player whose music contains a female voice, potentially shifting a game’s overall soundscape in small but meaningful ways. Women’s voices may not be permitted to carry much authority in baseball, but their increasing inclusion as walk-up artists demonstrates the profound cultural meanings they communicate outside the confines of the broadcast booth. For example, José Abreu and Aledmys Diaz are both Cuban players who chose Celia Cruz songs, highlighting her status as a powerful icon able to perform their love for their heritage. The relatively recent inclusion of female hip hop, R&B, and reggaeton artists like Cardi B., Nicki Minaj, Natti Natasha, and Rihanna signals a shift within the production and reception of these genres, and therefore a broadening cultural conception of who can embody the peacocking sort of confidence that walk-up songs are often selected to evoke.

Players who choose overtly teen-coded pop songs are still subject to gender-based scrutiny by the baseball press. Troy Tulowitzki chose Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the USA” for his 2010 walk-up song. A local journalist was so surprised the “tough-as-nails Tulo went with Miley, I just assumed he lost a bet with Jason Giambi or something.” Tulowitzki, however, explained that he simply liked the song and chose it to please young fans in the stadium. Similarly, a Twitter user who used to track plate music was quoted in 2015 as feeling suspicious when “some of these guys will have a Taylor Swift song, someone will have Katy Perry … I’m always curious why they chose a particular song — was it something they picked, or did they lose a bet?” That choosing to play fifteen seconds of music by a young female pop star continues to set off the masculinity red alert within baseball journalism betrays the entrenched conservatism of the institution. [ ((Though a full exploration of the following point falls outside the scope of this short article, it is still important to note that it is primarily the selection of music by white female musicians that seems to be beyond the pale. This resonates with long-standing and destructive beliefs in American culture about white women as paragons of femininity.))] Even so, I am inclined as a female baseball fan to see walk-up songs as a measured case of agency begetting agency, one tiny sound bite at a time. Baseball players are racially and culturally varied group whose subjectivities challenge the hegemonic white imaginary of baseball as America’s game. Where they are given a choice to speak for themselves, they do so through more discordant, more diverse, and more interesting musical registers than a single anglophone baritone crackling out over the AM waves.

Image Credits:
1. Newsday
2. YouTube
3. Author’s photograph

Please feel free to comment.




“It’s All American Stuff”: Sports Champions in the Trump White House
Brett Siegel / University of Texas at Austin




2019 Baylor Lady Bears



The 2019 NCAA Women’s Basketball champion Baylor Lady Bears visit the White House.

Imagining sports as an apolitical enterprise was always a fool’s errand. While media industries have long invested in the idea of sports content as ideologically safe [ ((Robert W. McChesney, “Media Made Sport: A History of Sports Coverage in the United States,” in Media, Sports, & Society, ed. Lawrence A. Wenner (Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, Inc., 1989), 57. ))], history has demonstrated time and again that structures of power, inequality, and injustice are never completely relegated to the sidelines. Instead, they fundamentally shape the ways we conceptualize, document, and memorialize athletic events and achievements. Considering that tweetstorms targeting professional athletes have now become par for the course, the Trump presidency has clearly introduced some new and compelling avenues for examining the intersections of sports, politics, and media. The evolving tensions surrounding the ceremonial White House visit for championship-winning teams offer an especially productive site for exploring these developments.

In a rhetorical analysis of these events, Michael David Hester details how U.S. presidents have traditionally used the language of sports adversity and triumph to applaud their own political victories, generating a “winner-by-association” effect designed to stimulate public approval and remind citizens of the president’s popular interests. [ (( Michael David Hester, “America’s #1 Fan: A Rhetorical Analysis of the Presidential Sports Encomia and the Symbolic Power of Sports in the Articulation of Civil Religion in the United States,” PhD Dissertation, (Georgia Tech University, 2005), 266. ))] While the tenor of these ceremonies is always contingent upon their unique historical contexts and the specific political agendas of the moment, they typically seek to emphasize a unified and cohesive vision of the nation that celebrates agreed-upon and ostensibly uncontested American ideals. I have written elsewhere that these rituals have taken on a disparate face and function during the Trump presidency, as athletes have increasingly opted not to attend the White House and Trump has responded by “disinviting” players and even entire teams who have openly critiqued the president and his policies. As a result, a previously taken-for-granted PR ritual has reemerged as a crucial symbolic space where essentialized versions of patriotism, citizenship, and America itself are challenged and reworked. [ (( Brett Siegel, “‘True Champions and Incredible Patriots: The Transformation of the Ceremonial White House Visit under President Trump,” Emerging Sport Studies, no. 2 (2019). ))]

The centerpiece of my previous research on this subject involved the 2017 NBA champion Golden State Warriors, who, after an exchange of Twitter barbs between Trump and Stephen Curry, decided to tour the National Museum of African American History with a group of children instead of attending the White House. The NFL naturally surfaced as another focal point for these discourses, further underscored by Trump’s indictment of players who protested police brutality by kneeling during the National Anthem. Some of the most striking examples of these controversies, however, have come within this past year. With limited space remaining, I will primarily focus on White House visits by the College Football champion Clemson Tigers, the NCAA Women’s Basketball champion Baylor Lady Bears, and the World Series champion Boston Red Sox. Much like those from the early years of Trump’s presidency, these most recent examples illuminate a divisive political climate in which oversimplified appeals to an unproblematic and universal American consciousness are openly interrogated and deconstructed.

“If It’s American, I Like It”

The 2019 College Football champion Clemson Tigers made headlines back in January with an unexpected rout of the perennial favorites from Alabama, but the menu at their visit to the White House proved equally surprising. Expecting to be treated to a formal catered meal, the team instead found a smorgasbord of fast food options — McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, and the like.


Clemson's Fast Food Spread



Trump poses with fast food before welcoming the 2019 College Football champion Clemson Tigers.

In the midst of a long-running government shutdown related to border wall funding, many of the staff that would normally work such an event were on furlough, leading Trump to purportedly pay for the spread himself. While prior visits in 45’s tenure displayed the more blatant politics of (non-)attendance, Clemson’s visit was notable for the ways in which the iconography of the event itself (read: burgers) came to represent and reconsolidate conceptions of nationalism and masculinity. Providing “great American food” from “all American companies,” Trump proclaimed, “If it’s American, I like it. It’s all American stuff.” Not only did the president frame a burger available in over 100 countries as unabashedly and definitively American, but he also deemed the unorthodox choice of cuisine as inherently masculine. In lieu of traditional catering, Trump joked with the team that an alternative proposition was “some little quick salads that the first lady will make,” ultimately confirming that these “guys aren’t into salads.” Of course, Trump did not waste the opportunity to compare his preferred diet to that of an elite group of college athletes, declaring, “We have everything that I like, that you like.” Ultimately, the president’s justification for an overindulgent menu as the only fitting tribute to American male success reflects the insistence that Trump himself is a paragon of good health, as well as the ludicrous paranoia that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her Green New Deal will take our burgers away. Now a mainstay at champion team visits, the fast food buffet and the “All-American” hamburger symbolize and contribute to broader Trumpian projects of “remasculinizing the nation by defying (feminized) moral authority.” [ (( Thomas P. Oates, Football and Manliness: An Unauthorized Feminist Account of the NFL (University of Illinois, 2017), 169. ))]

“I’ll Give It to Melania”

While the president hosted a large NCAA event in 2017 that included some women’s teams, it took over two years for Trump to hold an individual celebration for a women’s champion. Even the North Dakota State Bison football team, winners of the NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision, were granted a solo tribute first, and the reigning WNBA champions have yet to even receive an invite. When Trump welcomed the 2019 NCAA Women’s Basketball champion Baylor Lady Bears back in April, he doubled down on his fast food signature, despite the availability of caterers after the end of the shutdown. In a photo from the event, head coach Kim Mulkey appeared visibly miffed by the array, and a video posted by Kalani Brown shared similar sentiments.


Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey



Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey appears unimpressed with the spread.

While it is difficult to argue that taking a relatively cheap culinary route signals a general lack of respect for female athletics, especially given Trump’s defense of the same foods at Clemson’s visit, the very fact that it took this long to host a women’s championship team speaks volumes. When Mulkey offered him a commemorative jersey, Trump replied, “I’ll give it to Melania. You know I love those short sleeves. Such beautiful arms. Great definition.” Not only is the tone patronizing, but it further reinforces the rigid binary thinking that reflexively others the female athlete and reconstitutes the women’s championship team as an afterthought. Maintaining that visiting the White House “is not a political issue for me,” Mulkey recited familiar refrains about putting “politics aside” and embracing the moment. But in the case of the conspicuously named “Lady Bears,” the politics of attending are multi-faceted and complex. Representing a sport with a pronounced number of black and queer women, the team was criticized for meeting an administration opposed to the health, well-being, and basic rights of these very communities. But in showing up and demanding the visibility and respect so frequently denied to these identities, perhaps this too amounts to a significant political act.

“So Basically It’s the White Sox Who Will Be Going”

Although it was not the first time during the Trump presidency that white athletes attended the White House while many of their black and brown teammates stayed behind, the World Series champion Boston Red Sox visit in May marked the clearest racial division to date. When nearly every athlete of color elected to skip the ceremony, Boston sports columnist Steve Buckley tweeted, “So basically it’s the white Sox who will be going.”


2019 Boston Red Sox



The ceremony for the 2019 World Series champion Boston Red Sox was notably split along racial lines.

The team’s Puerto Rican manager, Alex Cora, also declined the invitation, citing the Trump administration’s inadequate response to Hurricane Maria and concluding, “I don’t feel comfortable celebrating at the White House.” Noting the many derogatory comments the president has made about Mexico and its people, Hector Velázquez worried that attending would offend fans from his home country. The black players who opted not to show were less forthcoming about their reasons than their counterparts in the NFL, where Trump has proven more liable to police and censor black athletes. Jackie Bradley Jr. told the Boston Globe, “I don’t get into politics,” while David Price refused to go because “It’s baseball season.” The Atlantic‘s Jemele Hill raises important questions about the tendency to urge sports personalities, and particularly athletes of color, to justify their decisions to forego the ceremonial White House visit, while the stark and disproportionate number of white athletes who do attend are rarely questioned in the same manner. Especially with a team that plays for a notoriously racist fanbase, we should question why these players are “comfortable being with a president who marginalizes and harms the communities to which their fellow players belong.” [ (( Jemele Hill, “Why Don’t White Athletes Understand What’s Wrong With Trump?,” The Atlantic, May 7 2019. ))]

“I’m Not Going to the F***ing White House”

I would be remiss not to close with Megan Rapinoe, who remains the only high-profile white athlete to kneel in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, and who informed Eight by Eight during the 2019 Women’s World Cup that she wouldn’t be “going to the f***ing White House” if invited.



Responding to Trump’s Twitter rant with a decisive championship, Golden Ball, and Golden Boot, the out lesbian soccer star and self-proclaimed “walking protest” set the stage for another fascinating case study. While the president took to social media to invite the team, “win or lose,” after Rapinoe’s comments, he has since cast doubt on the prospect of an official invitation. Teammates Ali Krieger and Alex Morgan have already resolved not to attend, and it remains to be seen how the issues and discourses surrounding the team (gender discrimination, queerness, whiteness, American exceptionalism, etc.) would translate to the political theater of a Trump White House visit (or rejection). Dominant international victories certainly welcome the opportunity to ruminate on national success and the so-called “American spirit,” but a team consisting of outspoken, unruly, and openly queer women clashes with the “White male backlash” politics [ (( Kyle W. Kusz, “‘Winning Bigly’: Sporting Fantasies of White Male Omnipotence in the Rise of Trump and Alt Right White Supremacy,” Journal of Hate Studies 14, no. 1 (2019): 113-135. ))] that have ignited Trump’s America, productively resisting the president’s attempts to (re)define the nation in exclusionary and bigoted terms.

Image Credits:

1. The 2019 NCAA Women’s Basketball champion Baylor Lady Bears visit the White House.
2. Trump poses with fast food before welcoming the 2019 College Football champion Clemson Tigers.
3. Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey appears unimpressed with the spread.
4. The ceremony for the 2019 World Series champion Boston Red Sox was notably split along racial lines.

Please feel free to comment.




OVER*FLOW: End Goal? The Promises of the US Women’s Soccer Team
Elizabeth Nathanson / Muhlenberg College




The USWC on Good Morning America



The US Women’s Soccer Team on Good Morning America.

It is not a stretch to claim that representations of the US Women’s Soccer team are emblematic of many contemporary trends in the state of feminism and popular culture. Upon winning the FIFA World Cup in July, the team has inspired both support and criticism. This victorious team is regularly situated in relation to the lawsuit the players filed in March against US Soccer for gender discrimination for paying women team members far less than men. Widely reported upon, the stories surrounding the soccer players depict a range of postfeminist, neoliberal, consumerist discourses which celebrate individuality and the promise of youthfulness. Absent from many of these discourses, however, is how the team’s representation finds strength in embracing the past, celebrating not just future generations but also the history of soccer players and feminist activism. Doing so gestures to a feminist politics that does not exploit the promise of youth, but rather finds strength in the invisible, unrewarded labors of women who have come before.

For those celebrating the FIFA win, the women’s team is seen as representative of a kind of American patriotism that resists the explosions of misogyny, racism, homophobia, and xenophobia, and other expressions of hate bubbling over in America. Opinion pieces such as those by the Editorial Board of The New York Times celebrate the win as representative of how the team has “earned a payday at least equal to their male counterparts.” [ ((The Editorial Board, “Show Them The Money,” The New York Times, July 8, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/08/opinion/world-cup-usa-pay.html?searchResultPosition=10.))] Megan Rapinoe in particular is seen as emblematic of “progress,” standing as a highly visible gay athlete who is a distinctly powerful role model. [ (( Christina Cauterucci, “Megan Rapinoe Is a New Kind of American Hero,” Slate, July 2, 2019, https://slate.com/culture/2019/07/megan-rapinoe-gay-icon-2019-world-cup.html.))] On the other hand, the National Review offers a tame example of the vitriol that is also being hurled at these players who are blamed for “politicizing” sports through language deemed “disgrace[ful].” [ ((Dennis Prager, “We All Wanted to Love the Women’s Soccer Team,” National Review, July 16, 2019, https://www.nationalreview.com/2019/07/womens-soccer-team-megan-rapinoe-disgrace/.))] Here, and elsewhere, these women are criticized for being “killjoys,” [ (( Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017).))] for stepping out of their lane by making the personal political. Mainstream editorials like these speak of the kind of “popular misogyny” that Sarah Banet-Weiser argues has risen in response to and alongside “popular feminisms.” [ ((Sarah Banet-Weiser, Empowered: Popular Feminism and Popular Misogyny (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018).))] This tension between celebration and hatred is only further illustrated when one dips a toe in the comments posted on Rapinoe’s Instagram stream. Here, comments vacillate wildly between those applauding her status as a role model and those spewing homophobic and misogynist garbage.

Given the way these athletes have ignited such furor, it is no surprise this team has been taken up by the media and by corporations seeking to profit from the popularity of these women, specifically through capitalizing on their youthful can-do spirit. [ ((Anita Harris, Future Girl: Young Women in the Twenty-First Century (New York: Routledge, 2004).))] In May, before the World Cup, the team appeared on Good Morning America. Standing next to a group of young girls, players were asked about their status as role models. [ (( Katie Kindelan, “US Women’s Soccer Stars Hope 2019 World Cup Inspires Girls to ‘Believe in Themselves’” May 24, 2019, https://www.goodmorningamerica.com/culture/story/us-womens-soccer-stars-hope-2019-world-cup-63250365.))] Immediately following their World Cup win, Nike released a commercial titled “Never Stop Winning” featuring the players. Like the 2018 Nike advertisement titled “Dream Big” featuring such athletes as Colin Kapernick and Serena Williams, “Never Stop Winning” extols the virtues of individuals striving to achieve in the face of adversity, and the success promised by creative determination.


Nike's



Nike’s “Never Stop Winning” Ad.

This Nike ad, like the GMA appearance, depicts the team as representative of future change that is gendered in nature. In black and white stills with voice over, the commercial uses a gritty authenticity to position these players as a righteous, virtuous group that can stand as trailblazing role models to who are moved to “believe.” This forward-looking celebration deploys the future tense in voice over as well as in visual images. The photographs of the current team along with the release of the video immediately following the World Cup win situate it very much in the “now,” and then bind it to the future image of youth, particularly young women.

With a few photos of the faces of earnest young girls interspersed with those of the well-known athletes, the sense of possibility is tied to these young bodies. This construction of the productive capacity of girls binds them to the Nike brand of politics in which power structures such as capitalism not only remain intact but profit off of these fantasies of innate feminine ability. While notably affecting, this form of corporate feminism risks functioning as a kind of “cruel optimism” in which “the scene of fantasy…enables you to expect that this time, nearness to this thing will help you or a world to become different in just the right way. But, again, optimism is cruel when the object/scene that ignites a sense of possibility actually makes it impossible to attain the expansive transformation for which a person or a people risks striving.” [ (( Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham: Duke University PRess, 2011), 2.))] In the Nike commercial, winning is associated with girls and the liberal feminist ideal of equal pay. When we are also facing attacks on reproductive rights, the lack of adequate caretaking workplace leave policies, an epidemic of sexual harassment and assault (just to name a few contemporary feminist concerns), equal pay cannot be the only, or more specifically, end goal for feminism. Furthermore, to place that goal on the promissory shoulders of this one team or individual girls to fix in the future rather than situate it in the complex system of economies and politics, strikes me, as the mother of a young daughter, as passing the buck.

The most exciting depictions of the US Women’s Soccer team, however, are not those that depend upon a forward-looking sense of possibility bound to the bodies of girls, but the invocations of sisterhood among the athletes and the attention to the history of discrimination that creates alliances across generations of teams and players. The media landscape has been filled with images of the players celebrating goals and wins in raucous jubilant solidarity. In April, celebrities like Jennifer Garner and Uzo Aduba, supporters of Hollywood’s gender equity organization Time’s Up, “showed their support” by wearing jerseys of players from the 1999 team while watching the current American team play a match. [ (( Jess Cohen “Jennifer Garner, Eva Longoria and More Form the Ultimate Squad at US Women’s Soccer Game.” E! Online, April 8, 2019, https://www.eonline.com/ap/news/1030676/jennifer-garner-eva-longoria-and-more-form-the-ultimate-squad-at-us-women-s-soccer-game.))]


Time's Up Supporting the US Women's Soccer Team



Time’s Up Supporting the US Women’s Soccer Team.

Such display of bonds across generations of players renders visible the work of past women’s teams, underscoring how the 2019 team is not the only group of women deserving of reward for their labor.

Furthermore, on social media feeds, team members chant “four stars” in celebration of their win, in effect connecting their team to previous three teams who have won the World Cup.


The Team celebrating



The Team Celebrating “Four Stars.”

By looking backwards these representations speak of a feminist politics that always stands in relation to historical context. Such inter-generational connections undermine arguments against systemic gender equality which might claim that this particular team is uniquely talented and therefore deserving of more money. Instead, when players are featured on the official team Twitter celebrating their contribution to the “four stars,” this collection of women is shown to be participating in a larger history of women athletes, all of whom are deserving of accolades, not merely those who are able to be dubbed the “best.” Rather than standing as static role models who endlessly pass the torch of feminist responsibility to younger generations, the “four stars” chant gives credit to the other teams, embedding feminist politics as never just about individuals or individual teams but always already rooted in history.


Image Credits:

  1. The US Women’s Soccer Team on Good Morning America. (Author’s screenshot from Good Morning America video)
  2. Nike’s “Never Stop Winning” Ad. (Author’s screenshot from Nike video)
  3. Time’s Up Supporting the US Women’s Soccer Team.
  4. The Team Celebrating “Four Stars.” (Author’s screenshot from the USWNT Twitter post)




Complaint as Diversity Work in Sports Media
Courtney M. Cox / University of Southern California

“Complaint as diversity work: what we have to do to dismantle the structures that do not accommodate us.” [ ((Ahmed, Sara. “Complaint as Diversity Work,” feministkilljoys, November 10, 2017, https://feministkilljoys.com/2017/11/10/complaint-as-diversity-work/. ))] – Sara Ahmed

DJ Steve Porter’s “One Clap” video, which aired during ESPN’s SportsCenter.

It started off like any other day at ESPN. I walked into work, set my bags down, and then I saw him, inside of a monitor in Studio F—DJ Steve Porter, in what appeared to be blackface. The award-winning DJ created pre-recorded monthly mashups which aired on SportsCenter, the network’s flagship program. This edition of Porter’s segment focused on now-retired NFL legend Randy Moss and his equally legendary press conferences. At the end of the video, Porter, who is white, is briefly shown behind his turntables wearing a Randy Moss mask and an afro wig.

DJ Steve Porter

A still shot of DJ Steve Porter in his video remix “One Clap.”

The brevity of the shot, combined with the dark lighting of the set, gave me the minstrelsy vibes which first caused my concern. Aware of both the intention of the segment (to celebrate Moss’s career) as well as possible perception (the lighting seems to transform the mask into a paint-like look), I decided to ask a few of my fellow black co-workers if they had seen the piece. All of them had, and while some wanted to speak out, the precarity of their positions as either project-based (temporary) or entry-level prevented them from alerting their higher-ups. One friend told me, “You know how few of us there are in the control room and newsroom. If one black producer is on vacation, another is off work, and the third works the late shift, who’s there to call it out?” I thought about the fact there were less than five black producers or supervising producers at the so-called Worldwide Leader in Sports and considered my own helplessness and vulnerability as a black woman barely old enough to drink and considered entry-level myself within my department.

I watched another hour of SportsCenter, and another pitch-black Porter. I decided to email my former boss, an influential supervisor in my department. He agreed to meet with me on my lunch break. I entered his office and told him about the segment. Seeing my concern, he looked at me empathetically. “Court, I’m going to call the supervising producer in the control room right now and let them know, but first you have to tell me what blackface is.”

Al Jolson

Al Jolson, the highest-paid and most famous entertainer of the 1920s, often performed in blackface.

As I began to explain the term and its history to my former boss, a middle-aged white man from Massachusetts, I realized in such a vivid way why discussions surrounding difference or “diversity” in the newsroom matter. After calling the supervising producer, he alerted me to the fact that they had received viewer complaints about the segment and had made a decision not to run the Porter mashup in upcoming SportsCenter airings.

It was my first time voicing concern about anything at ESPN, but in hindsight, my five years as an employee left much to be desired across the multiple locations and departments which often fulfilled me professionally but constantly tried my spirit and sanity as I moved throughout a company marked twice by race and gender. On-air talent slid me their phone numbers on show rundowns (and demanded I call them) during commercial breaks, opportunities to travel were limited for me and fellow female employees to “protect” us from “what happens on the road,” and when a scandal erupted surrounding an affair between a female production assistant and an older, married male baseball analyst, many women voiced private concerns that “she might ruin things for all of us.” I remember feeling nervous about complaining, as though I would mark myself as ungrateful, or too sensitive.

Years later, in a different position now studying these issues in an academic capacity, I see how little has changed. The white, Western-centric, heteropatriarchal industry that is sports media continues to produce rosters which fail to represent many of the athletes and fans which comprise and consume its content on a daily basis. Take, for example, recent discourses (and discipline) surrounding Jemele Hill and her tweets, or the recent Fantasy Football auction held on the ESPN lawn (which resembled a shot-for-shot remake of Jordan Peele’s auction scene in his 2017 film Get Out) which received backlash from athletes and viewers alike given the segment’s slavery overtones. Whenever these media mishaps occur, the question seems to always surface—there wasn’t anyone in the room who thought this was a bad idea?

And far too often, there isn’t. In the most recent report conducted by Dr. Richard Lapchick’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES), the Associated Press racial and gender report card rated the lowest out of all the reports—racial hiring received a C+, while gender received its fourth consecutive F. While the report focuses on print and online sports media (as opposed to my previous career in sports broadcasting), it should be noted that if ESPN’s numbers were removed from the report, the numbers would become significantly less diverse. If one of the “leaders” in difference still fails to create an inclusive culture and content, how can we begin to conceptualize a sports media landscape which offers a richer, more diverse range of people, backgrounds, and beliefs? And how can online platforms serve as new possibilities to engage with difference when even one of the latest enterprises, The Athletic, urges us to “fall in love with the sports page again” even as former National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) president Gregory Lee Jr. reports its staff comprised of 87.3% white (with 75% of those white males) journalists?

The Athletic

The Athletic describes itself as “the new standard in sports journalism,” but has been criticized for lack of diversity within its ranks.

On a podcast hosted by one of The Athletic‘s editors-in-chief, Tim Kawakami, he discusses the report of the company’s diversity woes with Marcus Thompson, a black columnist for the sports media website. Thompson says, “I’m the representative, I guess. They call us the four-percenters now because there’s only four percent black people…even how we got our jobs…there’s wasn’t an application.” While I appreciate their perspectives as two men of color addressing the lack of diversity within their ranks, the emotional exhaustion of representation is not lost on me. Thompson is hesitant to complain publicly about the lack of racial and gender diversity within his company, which he admits, reminding us of the potential cost of complaint for those seeking to stay employed.

Diversity work, according to Ahmed, is both the work we do to transform an institution and the work we do as those located outside of what is considered the norm. [ ((Ahmed, Sara. “Diversity Work as Complaint,” feministkilljoys, December 19, 2017, https://feministkilljoys.com/2017/12/19/diversity-work-as-complaint/. ))] The complaint emerges out of the challenging of these norms, whether explicitly, as I did in my boss’s office, or simply by how we appear in the space, disrupting the idea of who is allowed to be there. I am encouraged to forge new possibilities within literature related to identity and representation in sport and sports media while also understanding the weight complaints carry, as well as the risks involved. I believe improvements in the industry require a multi-pronged approach which 1) emphasizes the role of allies in these spaces to speak up, reducing the amount of emotional labor required of women and people of color, 2) employs more diverse voices and identities, expanding the breath of possibilities in content, and 3) reconsiders the complaint as a sharpening mechanism which allows for the potential transformation of industry culture. After all, “feminism,” as Ahmed writes, “is about giving a complaint somewhere to go.” [ ((Ahmed, Sara. “Complaint as Diversity Work.” ))]

Image Credits:

1. A still shot of DJ Steve Porter in his video remix “One Clap.” (author’s screen grab)
2. Al Jolson, the highest-paid and most famous entertainer of the 1920s, often performed in blackface.
3. The Athletic describes itself as “the new standard in sports journalism,” but has been criticized for lack of diversity within its ranks.

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“The Game on Top of the Game”: Navigating Race, Media, and the Business of Basketball in High Flying Bird
Courtney M. Cox / University of Southern California

High Flying Bird 1

High Flying Bird attempts to capture the business of basketball through agent Ray Burke (André Holland) and Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg).

On the surface, it appears to be a film about basketball. Netflix’s High Flying Bird (2019) boasts the back of a jersey on its cover, the sneaker squeaks of the gym, and the voices of some of the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) real-life up-and-coming stars (Reggie Jackson, Donovan Mitchell, and Karl Anthony-Towns) interspersed as vignettes with the film’s scripted SAV Management, an agency representing professional athletes. The main character, Ray Burke (played by André Holland) is an agent representing NBA rookie Erick Scott, the first pick in the previous draft who has yet to play his first game due to a league-wide lockout. At first glance, it’s a version of HBO’s Ballers meant to be taken seriously; the viewer spends time following Scott navigate the financial pitfalls of being a young millionaire-to-be who hasn’t gotten his first check, while Ray maneuvers through a firm struggling under the weight of the lockout as owners engage in battle with a players’ union fighting on behalf of its athletes.

The film tackles sport under late capitalism through slick visuals and overly-dramatic dialogue.

But close up, the film is a critical, albeit heavy-handed look at the global phenomenon of basketball and the racial and economic shifts which have shaped the game. Early in the film, old school coach Spence (Bill Duke) tells Ray, “There’s a reason why the NBA started integrating as the Harlem Globetrotters’ exhibitions started going international. Control. They wanted the control of a game that we play, we played better. They invented a game on top of a game.” The game on top is an ecosystem comprised of agents, television networks, marketing execs, and team owners who profit off of the spectacle of a majority-Black sport. Even Ray, a Black agent, is positioned outside of the power circle of his own firm and the greater “game” operating above the court.

Much of the film operates through smaller screens, filled with familiar faces and voices of TV personalities such as Skip Bayless and Shannon Sharpe, shows like TMZ, and tweets between players. The media isn’t a subplot of the film; it’s a major character. High Flying Bird focuses on the media’s role as a catalyst for both the actions of players, their families, and league representatives while simultaneously delving into the major media contracts between the NBA and TV networks, which comprise a large portion of the league’s annual revenue.

High Flying Bird 2

The media play an integral role in the film’s plot development.

Ray’s ingenuity in concocting a plan to end the lockout is rooted in creating “something that they can’t bottle up,” after his former assistant asks if they’ve “run out of story” (in the same way one could run out of money). One fabricated Twitter beef and 24-hour news cycle later, a one-on-one hoops showdown on a community court between two rookies draws in millions of views to shaky cell phone video, proving they may be out of money, but aren’t yet out of story. The exclusive nature of an untelevised one-on-one game between two players yet to take the court in the NBA takes the social media posts of those at the game viral and results in the potential to create new exclusive streetball games—”lockout ball”—while negotiations continue. Ray schedules meetings with Facebook and yes, even Netflix.

Watching the film, I couldn’t help but think of sport scholar Lawrence Wenner’s Transactional Model of Media, Sports, and Society Relationships. Wenner offered a blueprint of the “game on top of a game” in his canonical Media, Sports, and Society (1989). His visual representation of what has been called the sports-media complex (the interdependent relationship between sports and media) offers a bird’s eye view of the ties and tensions and between sports organizations, media conglomerates, and fans. [ (( Wenner, L. A. (1989). Media, Sports, and Society: The Research Agenda. In Media, Sports, and Society (pp. 13–48). Newbury Park: Sage Publications. ))]

Wenner model

In the late 1980s, Lawrence Wenner offered this model to explain the symbiotic relationship between sports, media, and society.

During a lockout, it is particularly difficult to ascertain what’s going on within the “sports organizations” triangle, comprised of athletes, owners, league officials, and the players’ association. It is interesting that Wenner chooses to place athletes within this particular grouping rather than outside of it (a la “sports journalists” in their own triangle from “media organizations”). Sports fans may remember 2011-2012 as particularly fraught for player-league relations as three out of the “Big Four” U.S. men’s professional leagues faced lockouts across the National Basketball Association, National Football League, and National Hockey League. Jonothan Lewis and Jennifer M. Proffitt, in comparing coverage of a lockout in 2011 to the mid-1990s, found that the media continues to focus on many of the same major themes: a consumer focus (the fan as the ultimate loser in these labor negotiations), lockouts as a “millionaires vs. billionaires” problem (rich people’s problems), and the players as “gaming the system.” [ (( Lewis, J., & Proffitt, J. M. (2013). Sports, Labor and the Media: An Examination of Media Coverage of the 2011 NFL Lockout. Labor Studies Journal, 38(4), 300–320. https://doi.org/10.1177/0160449X14522324. ))] High Flying Bird seemingly reifies this model throughout the film, locating athletes who wish to operate outside the league’s framework as deviant, or, as Ray defines it, “disruptors.” As negotiations between the players’ union and team owners stall, the concept of players and agents joining forces to create their own league and negotiate media rights deals feels like fantasy, even when housed within the realm of a scripted film. The concept of a lockout league is shopped around to interested media factions outside of the standard ESPNs, NBCs, and FOX offerings. Ray sets up meetings with Facebook and yes, even Netflix. “For a second,” Ray says, “I could see an infrastructure that put the control back in the hands of those behind the ball instead of those up in the sky box.” However radical this vision appears, the film captures how his eventual actions serve to move him socially and financially closer to sky box rather than realigning power to those on the court.

High Flying Bird 3

Ray’s attempts at a radical readjustment of power merely operate as a means to embed him further into the institution of corporatized sport.

In the same way, it is fascinating to consider that this film, shot by director Steven Soderbergh in two weeks on an iPhone (with a working cut available within hours of completing shooting), also represents a shift in the gatekeeping of filmmakers and production in general. While shooting a film on a smartphone is nothing new (thousands of film students do this daily), Soderbergh offers a potential disruption because of his position as an established industry figure. However, like the normalization of streaming platforms and social media networks into the entertainment industry, these technological shifts do not inherently make these spaces more egalitarian; rather, they become embedded into the system (an Oscar nod, the ability to hire and retain top talent, etc.). Ray’s desire to collapse the game on top of the game merely resulted in a regulating mechanism to stifle any potential dismantling.

Ultimately, the threat of reasserting the “control” that Coach Spence references at the beginning of the film is enough to end the lockout; Ray, in an attempt to assert himself within this game on top of a game, uses his position—along with the players as pawns—to change the power structure, if only for a moment. He, in turn, is rewarded, but once again absorbed into the larger framework. At best, he can only shift the model for his own benefit, not destroy it entirely.

Image Credits:

1. High Flying Bird attempts to capture the business of basketball through agent Ray Burke (André Holland) and Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg). (author’s screen grab)
2. The media play an integral role in the film’s plot development. (author’s screen grab)
3. In the late 1980s, Lawrence Wenner offered this model to explain the symbiotic relationship between sports, media, and society. (author’s screen grab)
4. Ray’s attempts at a radical readjustment of power merely operate as a means to embed him further into the institution of corporatized sport. (author’s screen grab)

Please feel free to comment.




“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.

description of image

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

Please feel free to comment.