The NFL Has Always Been Political

Those who decry the "politicization of sports" are only mad that it's black athletes now.

On Monday, in response to the protests that swept across the NFL the day before, The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board wrote a denunciation that read, in its orotund meatheadedness, a little like the transcript of a sports radio call-in show as hosted by William F. Buckley.

“American democracy was healthier when politics at the ballpark was limited to fans booing politicians who threw out the first ball — almost as a bipartisan obligation,” the Journal editorial sniffed. “This showed a healthy skepticism toward the political class. But now the players want to be politicians and use their fame to lecture other Americans, the parsons of the press corps want to make them moral spokesmen, and the President wants to run against the players.

“The losers are the millions of Americans who would rather cheer for their teams on Sunday as a respite from work and the other divisions of American life.”

This was “stick to sports,” padded out to 550 words — the quietist refrain of the conservative sports fan who pretends as if the NFL were some political DMZ. The Wall Street Journal is especially fond of this tack: It has given Jason Whitlock ample space to blast player Colin Kaepernick and decry ESPN’s supposed leftward tilt.

But it’s a fantasy. Sports is inherently political, and the existence of the NFL as a multibillion-dollar business enterprise today is a direct result of its aggressive political engagement ― a tradition that is, in fact, older than the Super Bowl. The league doesn’t stick to sports; why should its players?

Buffalo Bills players kneel in protest during the national anthem before a game in New York against the Denver Broncos on Sun
Buffalo Bills players kneel in protest during the national anthem before a game in New York against the Denver Broncos on Sunday.

In 1957, a full decade before the first Super Bowl, the NFL was still a fledgling enterprise trying to muscle its way to the front of the nation’s sporting consciousness when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that its method of negotiating television broadcast rights violated antitrust laws. The NFL, in response, turned to Congress, a practice it would hone in years to come, and the league prevailed upon lawmakers to pass the Sports Broadcasting Act of 1961 ― a law that effectively invalidated the court’s ruling by giving the NFL a limited exemption from antitrust law.

It was an early and important political victory that set the NFL on course to become the league it is today. Without the exemption, the NFL wouldn’t be able to collectively negotiate the sort of national television contracts that have helped turn it into America’s richest and most powerful sports league.

But the effect goes beyond television. Ever since the NFL merged with the upstart American Football League in 1966, the league has operated with the impunity enjoyed by any government-sanctioned monopoly, free to euchre every loose dollar out of its fans, free to exert dominion over the lives of its athletes without fear of a lighter-footed rival supplanting it.

The NFL’s competition with the nimbler and more innovative AFL had been good for football in general. The AFL was a blacker league, recruiting players from the small colleges ignored by its more established counterpart. In 1965, black players organized a boycott of the AFL all-star game over a series of racist incidents that had occurred in the scheduled host city. The AFL’s commissioner supported the boycott and moved the game to Houston.

But the NFL swallowed up the AFL, and now there is little chance of a competitor league coming along and luring away players and fans with potential perks: for players, say, a larger share of league revenue devoted to salaries or better health and pension protections; for fans, lower ticket prices and a promise not to black out local television broadcasts if games don’t sell out.

No such league has materialized in part because of mismanagement — never forget that team owner Donald Trump almost single-handedly destroyed the USFL in 1986 ― and in part because the exemption has allowed the NFL to grow so large as to render it virtually unassailable.

The league has never shied away from using that power in the political arena.

Fantasy football, an unmistakable driver of the NFL’s unrivaled popularity, is legal today primarily because the league successfully lobbied Congress to exempt the contests from federal laws that banned online gambling. The NFL, over the last 20 years, has also benefited from nearly $7 billion in tax subsidies that have helped its teams build stadiums that enrich its already-wealthy owners. The NFL and its teams are skilled political operators when it comes to acquiring that cash, pitting one city against another in order to extract the maximum amount from taxpayers. When a city doesn’t give the NFL what it wants, the league picks teams up and moves them to a city that will. 

Today, the league has its own political action committee and has poached political communications gurus and strategists away from high-ranking political positions. And it likely isn’t a coincidence that its federal lobbying expenditures have increased in recent years as lawmakers have re-examined its erstwhile tax-exempt status (which the NFL gave up voluntarily in 2015), its antitrust exemption (which it has fought to expand), the racist name of one of its teams, the legality of daily fantasy sports and sports gambling, and the brain injuries that plague the sport. The NFL, too, has allegedly used its considerable power to steer money away from certain federal government-sponsored studies into head trauma and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the degenerative brain disease that has been found in dozens of deceased football players.

For all the cries of hyper-politicization, it is impossible to imagine that an organization so carefully and deeply woven into America’s cultural fabric could ever avoid America’s politics, even if it wanted to. The debates held within the NFL’s borders ― about the long-standing dearth of black quarterbacks, coaches, executives and owners; about domestic violence; about labor; about prescription painkillers, marijuana and drug testing; about access to health care and any other number of issues ― are merely football-centric versions of the same political debates happening outside of them.

There is no such thing as a politically agnostic NFL, and the NFL we know today would not exist if there were.

The same is true of the current protests, on which the NFL’s default position is unavoidably political. Its choice to play the national anthem before games; its embrace of the singular view of patriotism that says wrapping yourself in the American flag is the only way to express love for your country; its unquestioned love of the military and military symbolism, from fighter jet flyovers to camouflage uniform accoutrements to the millions of dollars its teams took from the Pentagon to promote the military’s causes ― these are all forms of political speech, of the sort that has wrongly fed the notion that players kneeling during the national anthem to protest America’s ongoing racial injustices are somehow, first and foremost, disrespecting America’s troops.

There is no such thing as a politically agnostic NFL, and the NFL we know today would not exist if there were. What’s different today is who inside the NFL is engaging in politics, how they are doing so and what they are demanding.

Philadelphia Eagles strong safety Malcolm Jenkins (27) and defensive end Chris Long (56) stand for the anthem prior to a game
Philadelphia Eagles strong safety Malcolm Jenkins (27) and defensive end Chris Long (56) stand for the anthem prior to a game against the New York Giants on Sunday.

Today’s most compelling political voices in football are not wealthy white owners in bad suits urging Congress and state lawmakers to pass laws that further fill their pockets. They are black men in football uniforms who are demanding, right there in front of God and Jerry Jones and everyone, that football fans ― and Americans ― confront racial injustices that persist outside their sport but still affect them, too.

America ― particularly the conservative, male-dominated subset of America to which the NFL most directly sells itself ― has never been comfortable with the idea of that conversation, much less with any action to actually remedy the problems players like Kaepernick and Malcolm Jenkins and hundreds of others have identified, and so the response has been to cry that football is now “too political” to enjoy.

The players have not committed the sin of introducing politics into football. Their sin is to be black men talking about politics when the NFL wants them to shut up and entertain.

Ask these critics where, other than football, they’d rather have these conversations, or by what means, other than kneeling, they’d rather the players raise their concerns. The athletes have certainly tried. Earlier this year, Jenkins and four others visited Congress to push lawmakers on policing reforms. Other players have held town halls with local law enforcement and community groups. Kaepernick, who kicked all of this off, has donated nearly $1 million to charity.

They get no credit for this even from those who wish they’d take action instead of a knee, because the truth isn’t that those who rail against them believe that football is the wrong forum for political action. It’s that they’d rather not think about these problems at all.