How the Media Failed to Nail the NFL

A month ago it looked like the NFL might at last be pilloried for its culture of violence and big money. Then the media lost interest, and things got back to normal.

Emil Lendof/The Daily Beast

A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away, the NFL was in crisis. Back then, every single newspaper, website, and news show (even the fake news shows) was awash in gridiron scandal. Some were even questioning if the NFL could survive its own infamy.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the funeral: a miraculous resurrection!

In point of fact, the mass vilification of the league, which peaked a month ago, burned out as quickly as it ignited. As the league’s many defenders happily noted, the NFL’s ratings are higher than ever.

A vague consensus has formed as to why more fans aren’t turning away from the game, or clamoring for genuine reform. Football is simply too beloved and entrenched—too big to fail, in essence.

It’s a nice story, but it’s also total nonsense. Here’s what actually happened. Faced with an unprecedented opportunity to investigate the profound corruptions of the Football Industrial Complex, our corporate media wimped out. They converted what should have been a long-overdue moral reckoning into a shallow and hysterical ratings bonanza. “The NFL in crisis” became yet another disposable meme—much to the relief of NFL executives and fans alike.

It worked like this. First, the folks with the microphones and tape recorders focused obsessively on individual moral actors. Nearly all the coverage focused on Ray Rice punching his fiancé senseless and Adrian Peterson beating his child. These grisly images drew a huge audience, and allowed that audience to indulge in righteous indignation. In this way, the narrative of “NFL violence” was safely channeled into designated scapegoats, whose violent outbursts occurred off the field.

Yet on the very same day the Peterson story broke, chilling evidence emerged of the NFL’s on-the-field violence problem. The league admitted in federal court documents that it expects up to 30 percent of all former players to develop long-term cognitive ailments.

You would imagine that this story—the fact that nearly a third of the employees in America’s most famous workplace will wind up with brain damage—would dominate the headlines.

And you would be wrong. Instead, the central narrative remained focused on commissioner Roger Goodell and whether he’d seen footage of the Rice punch. Grown men and women spent hours fixated on these issues, as if Goodell’s expulsion would cleanse the league of its toxic gender roles, its nihilistic greed, or its relentless promotion of violence.

I had a front-row seat to the NFL media frenzy because I happened to have published a book—written months ago—called Against Football, which explores the moral hazards of the sport. I received dozens of invitations to speak on various programs.

I spent one particular frustrating morning, for instance, attempting to explain to a guileless CNN host that the NFL is a $10-billion dollar corporation and that expecting it to behave according to some human standard of decency was like expecting a cash register to sing your child a lullaby.

She appeared genuinely stunned by this notion. But before I could expand on this idea—by noting, for instance, that the NFL is both a legal monopoly and tax-exempt—a professional pundit steered the segment back to a predictable condemnation of the players in question.

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It soon became clear to me that the media’s essential aim wasn’t to question football’s dominance of American culture, but to preserve the status quo.

Every single day, pundits like Colin Cowherd and Bill Simmons issued rants that cannily managed to avoid any sustained ethical consideration of the NFL. The message was deeply reassuring to fans. We were never asked to confront our own complicity as sponsors of the game. Our job was to blame the same dastardly villains over and over again.

Even in the most sophisticated echelons of the media ecosystem, the fix was in. At one point, I was invited to appear on a segment of “Outside the Lines.” The most intrepid of the news programs on ESPN, OTL airs on Sundays at 8 a.m., well before the blitz of pre-game promotional programming. After all, ESPN is officially a business partner of the NFL to the tune of $5 billion plus per annum.

Much of the segment focused on Roger Goodell and whether he would hang on to his job. I took the opportunity to point out that many of the players in the upcoming slate of games would wind up with brain damage. “Who’s it going to be?” I asked. “Is it going to be Wes Welker? Is it going to be Tom Brady?”

“On a business level,” the host responded, “How does it matter?”

This was a fairly typical exchange. I spent a lot of time—both in media appearances and editorials—summarizing the central arguments in my book. I pointed out that the NFL effectively transfers billions of dollars from taxpayers to mega-rich owners in the form of stadium subsidies. I questioned the degrading arrangement by which football—a game violent enough to diminish brain activity—has infiltrated our educational system. And I talked about the cynical manner in which poor boys, most of them African-American, are offered football as a path to economic salvation, thus becoming part of a system that ignores the content of their character, requires them to suppress their empathy, and winds up rewarding only a tiny fraction of them.

I assumed book critics, at least, would engage these arguments. More often, they sidestepped them altogether. The approach taken by Esquire’s Tom Junod was representative. His opening lines ran as follows:

I know but one thing about the upcoming football season:I’m going to watch it.And I’m going to feel a little bad about watching it.

The whole point of his “review” wasn’t to evaluate my arguments at all, but to justify his own consumption of football. Other reviews read more like press releases from NFL headquarters. Writing in the Washington Post, James Trefil, an avid fan of the game, assured readers that “football seems to be able to adjust to new concerns as they arise.” He cited the NFL’s decision to donate millions to a brain research center as proof of the league’s concern for player safety.

Trefil and his editors were either unaware of, or unconcerned by, the fact that 5000 former players are suing the NFL, alleging a “concerted effort of deception and denial” that included “industry-funded and falsified research.” League officials are desperately seeking to settle this suit rather than face a trial, an understandable decision given the damning details of their decades-long cover-up chronicled in the book League of Denial.

But why ruin a lovely fantasy with ugly truths?

I mention all these episodes not merely to complain about my misfortune, but because I wrote Against Football specifically to provoke the moral reckoning I mentioned above.

As a recovering fan, I still regard football as a thrilling spectacle. But the more I learned about the game, the more convinced I became that fans would reconsider their allegiance if they understood how the NFL actually operates.

A month ago, I honestly believed that the historical moment had arrived for Americans to ponder why football has become so important to us, why we need a beautiful, savage game to feel fully alive.

I still believe that question is worth asking. But I’ve also come to realize that our vaunted free press has no interest in posing such a disruptive question. For them, the cowardly cynicism of the status quo will do just fine. The only honest discussion of football will be one initiated and sustained by fans.