The National Football League, despite a reported dip in fan support this year, remains the most popular and profitable sports league in America. Though it generates in the range of $10 billion annually, it’s heavily subsidized by its fans, American taxpayers, who provide 70 percent of the capital costs in stadium construction. NFL headquarters, meanwhile, enjoys tax-free status as a non-profit organization and the league's commissioner, Roger Goodell, earned more than $40 million last year.
The athletes that make the league a viable business—the majority of them having worked their way up to the professional level after years of labor exploitation in the NCAA—have an average career length of just over three years, according to the NFL Players Association. In retirement, many have debt, debilitating injuries, and, as we’re becoming increasingly aware, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a form of neurodegeneration resulting from repeated head injuries.
The NFL is unique in its distinction as the most popular professional league in America but its flaws, both glaring and profound, don’t exist in a vacuum.
"The students said they would see an America without sport as a world that is deficient. Almost none of them said something good about it."
As a social institution, sport not only reflects but actively shapes American culture. Social inequalities are reinforced and athletes are commodified, as is sport itself.
We know that public money is used to build private stadiums for obscenely rich owners, whose own net worth increases exponentially through taxpayer dollars, and that the same owners are given free reign to operate their businesses with impunity, cutting deals with local politicians and authorities, avoiding property taxes and other legislation.
We know the long-term consequences for cities that invest in mega-events that leave them indebted and marred with hulking, underused facilities. We’re aware of the hero worship, fandom, and groupthink of sports, and how that same culture of adoration can insulate and protect felonious athletes and owners, even in the face of obvious guilt.
More recently, we’ve started to pay attention to our habits of consumption. The role we, as fans, play in building the narrative of the pro athlete, of producing, consuming, and disposing of them, repealing that assigned worth when they no longer prove useful.
So, in response, what would happen if we eliminated the institution of sport—from the high school level to the pros? Every league, every team. All of it. Gone. What would America look like then?
I posed this question to 10 academics teaching at different institutions across the country. Their responses varied, though most touched on the social aspect of sport and that by eliminating the cultural stage and spectacle sport affords, we would consequently uproot our wired responses to race, class, sexuality, gender, and social assembly.
John Vrooman, who played football and baseball at Kansas State University and now teaches sports economics at Vanderbilt University, went as far as to say that in a hypothetical America without sport we would probably no longer exist. “As derived from our societal DNA, organized sport reflects the basic duality of Western man and the yin and yang of Eastern philosophy,” Vrooman writes in an email. He goes on:
The games themselves require a dialectical balance in that competition must be tempered at some point, because even the greatest club or individual player is only as strong as his/her weakest opponent.... The strength and beauty of our games lies in their dynamic balance of symbiotic competition and cooperation. At either competitive or cooperative extreme we will no longer exist as a cohesive society.
Allen Sanderson, senior lecturer in the Department of Economics at the University of Chicago, says the elimination of sport, from a financial perspective, would be felt most strongly not in large city centers but in areas where there are few professional or collegiate teams. Areas where the money spent at bars and hotels and restaurants during games is integral to the local economy. As for major metropolitan areas, the economic impact of sports, Sanderson says, whether pro or college, “is really quite minimal.”
“L.A. doesn't have a national football league team, although it has USC and UCLA which are basically pro teams, but they have good weather, they’re on ocean, there’s tons of other things to do,” Sanderson says. “So if you compare cities with and without these kind of things, I think it's a hard case to make that sports make one city and does not make another.”
Staying at the collegiate level, Dr. Richard King, a professor at Washington State University who specializes in race and culture, brought up the arms race of college sports—the hiring of superstar coaches, the construction of world-class facilities, the recruitment process of top-tier athletes—and the status, dollars, and prestige that follows.
“You do wonder, who's getting the money? Where is the money going?” King asks. “And if there wasn't this kind of spectacular economy getting produced off of free labor, how else might that capital be used, or what else might people be building?” Last week, on the first day of the fall term, he asked the students in his Cultural Politics of Sport class for their thoughts.
“The students said they would see an America without sport as a world that is deficient. Almost none of them said something good about it,” King says, also noting that in a class of 50 students, only one didn't have an active relationship with sport—watching or playing—in the last week. King goes on:
At least one student is there on scholarship, and said they wouldn't be in college without sport. Twenty percent said life would be very lacking in the United States if we didn't have sport. A number of people were really puzzled about what we do with our competitiveness, and some people just couldn't really comprehend what that would mean.
In general I’d say the students, probably because most of them like sport, thought that it’s just a crazy idea that would ruin the world.
Sport is rooted in physical culture, in the mass mediation of a select few sports, played by men, and based on the extremes of the male body, says Dr. Mary McDonald, the Homer Rice Chair in Sports and Society at Georgia Tech.
Since sports naturalize notions of difference between men and women, would their elimination result in greater equality? Would we be able to construct games, or other ways of using the human body, where both the achievements of men and women could be celebrated equally? Would a different intellectual or creative pursuit rise to popularity and, if it did, would we be any better for it?
“It’s the chicken or the egg question about social change,” McDonald says.
Is it the culture around masculinity, around white privilege, that creates and produces that (notions of inequality and perceived differences)? Does eliminating sport challenge that? My sense is that the norms and practices of the culture produce the need for this spectacle around the male body. On-the-ground thinking about other elements of culture would need to change.
It’s very telling that there have been very few proposals from feminists or kinesiologists or sports marketers to come up with a way that men and women can compete together, or men and women can compete on a different kind of a playing field.
To me that suggests that the fundamental questions are still being framed with reverence to masculinity as opposed to what can we do differently or how might we interact, compete, play, with everybody—where everybody might be equal.
But, McDonald says, they are rumblings, indicators that we are waking from our passive slumber. “I’m starting to hear conversations that in 25 to 30 years of studying sport, I haven't heard before.”
It’s entirely possible that we’re moving toward a new era of sport—where we understand the vulnerabilities of the human body, that the value of sport reaches far beyond dominant ideology reproduction, that it’s also the site of complicated meanings and practices. Greater awareness seems, if not close, then at least visible on the horizon, drifting slowly toward us.
The Sports Lens is a running series exploring the intersection of sports and culture.