Steve Almond is the author of “Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto.”
Over the past few weeks, Americans have been confronted by a slew of scandals besieging our most popular sport. Outrage over the off-the-field violence of star running backs Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson has been accompanied by the revelation that the National Football League expects almost one-third of its retired players to develop long-term cognitive problems at “notably younger ages” than the rest of the population. Amid all this scrutiny, the NFL remains enshrouded in myths. Let’s consider five of the most stubborn.
1. The NFL is on its way to resolving its concussion crisis.
This talking point, trumpeted by league officials and routinely repeated by sports reporters and fans, relies on the notion that new helmet technology and rule changes will suffice. In fact, the number of concussions was up more than 50 percent in this year’s first three preseason games compared with the same games last year.
And even if the league reduces concussions, the profound risks to its players will remain in the form of sub-concussive hits, the hundreds or even thousands of lesser blows that damage the brain without registering as full-blown concussions, and that are absorbed not just during games but in every full-contact practice.
The NFL doesn’t have a concussion crisis, in other words; it has a violence problem. Players are bigger, stronger and faster than ever. When they collide, their brains — soft organs — smash against the inside of their skulls. No miracle technology or rule tweaking is going to undo the basic physics and physiology of the sport.
2. The NFL’s economic model is socialist.
It’s true that NFL teams share revenue generated by TV and merchandise deals. But this fact is a testament to the league’s canny corporate ethos. In 1961, for instance, lobbyists persuaded Congress to pass a law that allowed the NFL to circumvent antitrust rules and to sell TV rights, collectively, to the highest bidder. In effect, the NFL became a legal monopoly. A few years later, lawmakers cut a deal with the league that granted it tax-exempt status.
Like most effective monopolies, the NFL has leveraged its power at the expense of taxpayers, who supply 70 percent of the funding for NFL stadiums — along with millions in infrastructure — according to Judith Long, a professor of urban planning at Harvard University. Team owners also receive lucrative “inducement payments” to keep them from moving their franchises to other cities. Billionaires shaking down cities and states for public monies? That’s not socialism. It’s crony capitalism.
3. NFL players are especially prone to be arrested for violent crimes.
It has become common practice for media outlets to run stories about the criminal tendencies of NFL players in the wake of major arrests. This is the reason that pundits such Geraldo Rivera can get away with making derogatory remarks about the “jungle ethos” of players.
But while NFL players are more likely to be arrested on weapons charges than other adult men, they are less likely to be arrested on assault and drug charges. And a detailed statistical analysis by FiveThirtyEight.com revealed that the overall arrest rate for NFL players — when compared with other men in their age range — is just 13 percent of the national average.
The more interesting question — one rarely posed in the crime-blotter coverage of these cases — is how NFL players are treated by the criminal justice system. What sort of legal advantages do their fame and wealth confer?
4. NFL teams are a boon to local economies.
The NFL and its boosters portray the league as the ultimate job creator. A USA Today story cited a study — commissioned by the NFL Players Association — claiming that the league “supports about 110,000 jobs in NFL cities” and that games add “about $5 billion” to local economies.
But check the fine print. Smith College economics professor Andrew Zimbalist and his colleagues have long argued that the “economic impact” studies commissioned by the NFL and its potential host cities to drum up support for new stadiums are essentially propaganda. He and 16 collaborators compared the economies of cities with new stadiums with those of cities that invested in other forms of economic development. Across the board, the economists found that the sports facilities produced “an extremely small (perhaps even negative) effect on overall economic activity and employment.”
A study by financial-services firm UBS concurred: “Independent academic research studies consistently conclude that new stadiums and arenas have no measurable effect on the level of real income or employment in the metropolitan areas in which they are located.” The reason for this has a fancy name (“the substitution effect”), but it’s pretty simple: People tend to spend consistent amounts of money on entertainment. Football doesn’t increase that net economic activity in a city; it merely channels it into football-related endeavors.
The NFL offers a feast-or-famine model of economic development. Rather than supplying year-round jobs, the league creates 10 or so mega-events annually (i.e. home games) during which the city adds a large number of temporary, low-wage jobs. But even such events can have a downside. As UBS noted, “Sports fans tend to displace other visitors.”
5. The NFL is a ticket out for young men with no other options.
Millions of Americans read Michael Lewis’s bestseller “The Blind Side” or saw the hit movie that earned Sandra Bullock an Oscar. The story offered a familiar narrative: A poor African American teen is recognized for his athletic talents, winds up attending college on a scholarship and eventually makes the pros. It was perfectly calibrated to reinforce the larger idea — endlessly recycled in the sports media — that football represents a form of economic salvation.
The truth is a little less inspiring. According to the NFL Players Association, only 215 of the 100,000 high school seniors who play football in a given year will make the pros. That’s one-fifth of 1 percent. What’s more, the average length of an NFL career is less than four seasons. In 2009, Sports Illustrated estimated that 78 percent of players went bankrupt, or were on the verge of doing so, within two years of retiring.
Amid all the focus on players who earn multimillion-dollar salaries, fans lose sight of the larger reality: The NFL is essentially a lottery ticket. Far from providing opportunity in our most economically vulnerable communities, football deludes us into believing that every kid has a shot — so long as he weighs 280 pounds, can run 40 yards in 4.5 seconds and doesn’t mind putting his body at risk of permanent injury for our entertainment.