Celebrity Sports Writing
From the athlete to the owner, sports increasingly became a matter of branding. Athletes could work to control their images through ads and paid appearances. Nowadays, blogs, tweets, and Facebook pages give teams and athletes direct access to fans. They can announce (and spin) their own news. There are tightly-controlled and infrequent mass media conferences. One-on-one interviews are negotiated with agents and public relations advisors. Sports writing has become another department of celebrity journalism.
Attempts at progressive activism within sports tended to be co-opted by cash; product endorsement money (think of those Nike ads) has usually kept even socially conscious athletes quiet. Few successful watchdog organizations were ever formed, though Ralph Nader's revived League of Fans may be something to keep an eye on. Its first public statement was a call for the end of college athletic scholarships, a fundamental building block of the pro game.
The violent excitement of football, its aggressive marketing, and the solidarity of the owners—many of the more recent ones new-money entrepreneurs—were all factors that helped push the game past baseball in audience and revenue. It captured the techno-smashmouth-imperialism of an empire that didn't quite know it was fading. Every mad-dog linebacker was an avatar for hedge-fund managers.
Some days I think that the worst-case scenario—no National Football League games this year—might be a blessing, especially if it were extended down through college and high school into the peewee leagues. It would be a year in which we could study those leading American issues that football vivifies so well.
Take lack of proper healthcare. No one is discussing steroids at the moment, although the freakish size and musculature of so many players would seem to indicate either the arrival of ever more sophisticated performance-enhancing drugs that escape detection or testing that is less rigorous than we have been led to believe.
The most pressing immediate concern, however, is head trauma. It usually becomes apparent years after retirement, but it begins in childhood when pounding on more vulnerable brains leads to lasting damage. A year off would give everyone a chance to let the steroids drain out and the testing for head injuries (even among youngsters) begin.
The classism and racism in pro football is almost too obvious to be worth mentioning. That the players are now predominately African-American, many of them sons of the underclass, may make this revolt of the gladiators even harder for the entitled white, ego-driven plutocrats—not to mention the fans, predominately white and ever more likely to identify with the positions of the owners in this dispute. Otherwise, how do you explain the phenomenal expansion of the fantasy leagues in which every fan gets to be both owner and general manager of his or her own team?
And of course, it hardly needs be said that sexism remains pernicious, ranging as it does from those endless filler shots of hottie cheerleaders to a continuing pervasive discrimination against female college athletes which is frequently an attempt to protect the existence of large college football teams. Title IX, the federal law mandating fair play for women, requires an equity between male and female athletes. To balance their 100-plus squads of football players, college athletic departments routinely lie about the number of varsity female athletes they support.
And then there's the violence, on field as well as off (about 20% of NFL players have arrest records, according to articles and a book by investigative reporters Jeff Benedict and Don Yaeger); and don't forget in the living room—domestic abuse hotlines light up after big games. Is it the gambling, the liquor, the testosterone?
Maybe we should be rooting for the labor impasse after all, at least through the coming season, during which we could learn some new football cheers:
Drain those steroids! Scan those brains! Open those financial books! Hit... softer!
Robert Lipsyte is a former New York Times sports columnist and Jock Culture correspondent for TomDispatch.com. His new memoir, An Accidental Sportswriter (HarperCollins), has just been published. For a TomDispatch video sneak peek at the book, click here.