Is Supporting the NFL Racist?

My wife and I watched Concussion Protocol last night, a short film that dramatically presents every concussion in the NFL this season. It reimagines the context, removing the visual thrill audiences get when we watch two professional athletes slam into each other at full force. It takes away the beauty of the violence and leaves us with only its after-effect, the irreparable brain injury that leads, we now know, to intense personality changes, increased depression, alcohol and drug addiction (as a way to self-medicate), and, ultimately, suicide.

In yesterday’s post about polytheism, I quickly referenced an interesting question, “What things am I doing now that will be considered racist or sexist by future generations?” After watching the short film and discussing it with my wife, I wonder if “Supporting the NFL” might be my best answer.

My wife noticed that a majority of the NFL players who suffered a concussion in the 2017-2018 season were persons of color. This should not be surprising. According to the annual report from the Institute for Diversity & Ethics in Sport, roughly 72% of NFL players are people of color and roughly 69% of them are African-American. It would make sense that of the 281 diagnosed concussions in 2017-2018 season, a majority would happen to a person of color.

With such a race disparity in the league and 2017’s 13.5% increase in the number of diagnosed concussions (the highest number of concussions in the last five years, despite the 47 rule changes the NFL has made since 2002 to reduce concussions), we have to ask: Is supporting the NFL and helping it become the most successful professional sports league in the world (by revenue) the everyday normal thing that future generations will consider incredibly racist?

According to that same report from the Institute for Diversity & Ethics in Sport, only two teams in the NFL have a majority owner who is a person of color. The Jacksonville Jaguars are owned by Shahid Khan, a Pakistani-American who is the 158th wealthiest person in the world and the wealthiest Pakistani on Earth. He made his money supplying bumpers to the Big Three automakers and Toyota, but he also owns a team in the Premier League, which I’m sure helps improve his bottom line. His net worth is $7.5 billion.

The second majority owner of color is Kim Pegula of the Buffalo Bills. Mrs. Pegula is a woman of South Korean origins, having been born there in 1968. She was adopted by an American family in 1974. Later, while interviewing for a waitressing job in Western New York, she met her future husband, Terry Pegula, a man almost 20 years her senior who had made billions in fracking. Despite interviewing for a waitress job, her future husband hired her to work at one of his natural gas companies. They eventually married.

In the one interview I watched of Mrs. Pegula, she seemed interested and yet not particularly knowledgable, offering substance free responses to a local interviewer’s softball questions. I don’t want to take anything away from whatever work Mrs. Pegula might be doing in the front office, but one gets the impression that the Buffalo Bills’ “majority ownership by a person of color” is a legalistic fiction. I used to work for a company where the man who owned the corporation shifted its legal ownership to his wife so that the company could receive tax benefits and friendly financing terms for being “minority owned.” Despite the legal arrangement, everyone within the company knew the seat of power and authority never changed.

There may be two persons of color who are legal majority owners of an NFL team, but I suspect in reality there’s only one. Mrs. Pegula may be doing a fine job — she really might be — but she’s not the person with $4.5 billion in her bank account.

All of which is to say that the majority of the money generated by the on-field violence of 1,696 professional athletes, roughly 1,200 of whom are persons of color, winds up in the pockets of filthy-rich white people (and one filthy-rich Pakistani-American).

Now consider the extended economy that exists around the NFL.

Anheauser-Busch InBev, the largest brewer of beer in the world, is principally owned by three white families in Belgium. Yum! Brands, the owners of Pizza Hut, the largest pizza chain in America by revenue, is principally owned — once you follow the money — by a bunch of filthy-rich, primarily white men who sit on the boards of dozens of financial behemoths. The same goes for PepsiCo, owner of Frito Lay and all its brands of potato and corn chips (including Tostitos). While PepsiCo has a diverse board of directors, some of the people who sit on it include the son of an oil company tycoon, a former Google executive, a wife of a great-grandson of John D. Rockefeller, and a Swiss pharmaceutical executive who served as the CEO of the world’s fifth largest drug company; in other words, filthy-rich white people.

According to one newspaper article I found (from 2011), NFL games add roughly $5 billion to the broader economy in NFL cities. Cleveland, for example, sees around $8 million in extra economic activity on days when the Browns play at home. The Meadowlands in New Jersey employs roughly 4,000 people on any given NFL Sunday, from ticket takers to parking lot attendants to janitors. The company that supplies the hot dogs and beers to the Meadowlands maintains a payroll of roughly $24 million. Other companies supply the napkins, the mops, the toilet paper. TV networks, of course, generate roughly $3.5 billion in advertising revenues. The list could go on.

In the United States, roughly 70% of all businesses are owned by white men, so we can assume that roughly 70% of all the revenue generated by the NFL’s extended economic sphere winds up in the hands of those same white men.

With no fine point, we’re talking about billions and billions and billions of dollars, all generated on the backs of 1,696 professional athletes, roughly 1,200 of whom are persons of color, and an increasing number of whom are enduring a level of brain trauma that will, for certain, decrease the length and quality of their lives, and in the process, the quality of lives of family members and friends.

“What things am I doing now that will be considered racist or sexist by future generations?”

The slave trade was a vastly profitable engine of the American economy, but we realize now that wasn’t worth it. Regardless of how much money one could make off it, slavery was wrong in every way.

I don’t want to suggest a 1:1 relationship between slavery and professional football. The highest paid player of color in the 2017 NFL season made over $12 million to run a ball into the end zone, while slaves generally didn’t get paid a dime. Of course, slaves also had no control over their past, present, or future, and they feared for their lives at the hands of their masters. Along with being worked to death, they were tortured, raped, and murdered, and their family members were taken from them like puppies from their mother. No one is raping wide receivers or selling off the children of free safeties.

But I do want to suggest that generations from now, people might look back on our support for the NFL and say, “It wasn’t worth it. It was wrong in every way. It was a league of predominantly white men making vast sums of money on gladiatorial violence done to the bodies of predominantly black men.”

I’m not sure I can disagree.

But I am sure that come Super Bowl Sunday night, I’ll gather with friends to watch my beloved New England Patriots (principally owned by a white guy) strive to achieve their sixth NFL championship. I’ll purchase craft-brewed beers from companies that are probably owned by (maybe not so filthy rich) white men and eat chicken wings produced with ingredients from primarily white-owned companies. I’ll bring with me to the party a dip whose ingredients are also produced by primarily white-owned companies. Virtually all of the economic activity I engage in on Sunday night will eventually stream into the pockets of an already-filthy-rich white man.

There are people who look at everything Thomas Jefferson accomplished and say, “Yeah, but he owned slaves.” Will future generations say of you and me, “Yeah, but they supported the NFL”?

I fear that maybe they will.

And yet still, I say with my wallet and my voice, “Go Patriots!”

Compliments, Criticisms, Questions?