Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 13, 2014

Against football

Filed under: sports — louisproyect @ 6:06 pm

For the past few months, there has been a steady barrage of news reports on the moral failings of football players with a tendency to put the blame on those in positions of responsibility both in the professional and amateur realms. But as you might expect, there has been an utter failure to put football into a broader social and political context, something I hope to do in this essay.

In early September, Baltimore Raven running back Ray Rice knocked out his wife and then dragged her unconscious body from an elevator in an Atlantic City hotel:

Roger Goodell, the CEO of the National Football League, then suspended Rice for two games—a decision that led to widespread disgust with both Rice and himself. Goodell has to walk a tightrope in such cases and other cases involving NFL accountability, such as the widespread incidence of brain damage in veteran players. He has to convince the media and the fans that he is for the integrity of the sport while making sure that the cash keeps flowing into the owners’ pockets. Ultimately he is responsible to them and not to society.

Ironically this balancing act was not much different than the one carried out by his father Charles Goodell, a Republican Senator who understood that NYers would not vote for someone too far to the right.

Not long after the Ray Rice incident broke the news, another scandal involving a NFL running back took place. Adrian Peterson, a Minnesota Vikings superstar, was arrested for beating his four-year-old son with a branch he tore from a tree. Why, you ask? Apparently the kid pushed his brother while he was playing a video game. TMZ broke this story, just as it did when it published the Ray Rice video. Here’s the police photo of the child’s whipping marks.

Ray Rice was a star football player at Rutgers. This school was in the news a couple of years ago for the bullying behavior of its basketball coach who routinely called his players “faggots”, “motherfuckers”, etc. when he wasn’t throwing the ball at their head for mistakes made during practice. Apparently the football team had the same sort of culture. David Cohen, the defensive coordinator, was accused of bullying by defensive back Jevon Tyree who told the Daily News that Cohen called him a “pussy” and threatened to head-butt him.

I don’t know if there was much of a bullying problem at the University of Oklahoma but Adrian Peterson’s alma mater was host to a kind of Hells Angel clubhouse under coach Barry Switzer in the late 80s. In January 1989 cornerback Jerry Parks shot offensive lineman Zarak Peters in the chest during a drinking bout, only missing his heart by a couple of inches. When the players weren’t trying to kill each other, they were out terrorizing women. One week after the shooting sophomore running back Glen Bell, sophomore offensive tackle Nigel Clay and junior tight end Bernard Hall gang raped a woman on campus. Afterwards Switzer said on local television, “You can’t speak in general terms and say that these players are out of control. That’s totally ridiculous.”

This kind of behavior is fairly typical for the powerhouse football teams like the U. of Oklahoma and Florida State that got profiled in a long investigative piece that appeared in the NY Times on October 11th. Florida State first became part of the national dialogue on football criminality when its superstar quarterback Jameis Winston got kid gloves treatment by the local cops, their campus colleagues and the administration after a female student charged him with rape.

The Times article describes a widespread pattern of thuggish behavior sanctioned by the cops, who were major fans of the football team and benefited from part-time jobs at the arena, as well as malign neglect from the administration:

The cops received a 911 call in January:

“You just need to get someone out here right away because it is really bad,” the caller said, adding that the man was “punching” the mother and “grabbing the little baby around the arm.”

But when the cops discovered that the man was a member of the Seminole football team (a name that dishonors the indigenous peoples just as much as the Redskins), they decided the charge of domestic violence was “unfounded”.

In June the cops got another call. Jesus (Bobo) Wilson had stolen another student’s motor scooter that supposedly he had permission to ride but whose last name he did not know. The cop decided not to arrest him because “he cooperated, showed no signs of guilt and provided a plausible story that needs to be investigated.” A report surfaced today that cops are likely to kill a Black youth 21 times more frequently than a white. I guess the one way to avoid a bullet or an arrest is to get recruited to the Seminoles.

The team has a favorite form of recreation to relieve the stress that goes along with drills on the field and big-time games with other powerhouse teams. Players arm themselves with bb guns and ride around campus shooting at windows or students for target practice. When I was 11 years old or so I got shot in the leg with a bb gun. It won’t kill you but it hurts like hell. Also, you don’t want to get shot in the eye even if it amuses a jock.

The article also reported on how Jameis Winston is holding up to the rape charge:

Most recently, university officials suspended Mr. Winston for one game after he stood in a public place on campus and, playing off a running Internet gag, shouted a crude reference to a sex act. In a news conference afterward, his coach, Jimbo Fisher, said, “Our hope and belief is Jameis will learn from this and use better judgment and language and decision-making.”

A search of his public Instagram page would have turned up a similar display. Amid photos of himself with his coach, the comedian Will Ferrell and the former N.F.L. quarterback Archie Manning, Mr. Winston posted a video clip in February in which he and a teammate, mimicking a viral music video, jokingly sang a line from the song “On the Floor” by the rapper IceJJFish, which celebrates men not taking “no” for an answer from women:

“She said she wants to take it slow, I’m not that type of guy I’ll letcha know, when I see that red light all I know is go.”

If the NFL is at the top of the food chain and the college is in the middle, then high school is where the minnows can be found. In a scandal that has New Jersey and the northeast doing some soul-searching, seven members of the Sayreville high school football team were arrested for sexual assault as NJ.com reported:

It came without warning.

It would start with a howling noise from a senior football player at Sayreville War Memorial High School, and then the locker room lights were abruptly shut off.

In the darkness, a freshman football player would be pinned to the locker room floor, his arms and feet held down by multiple upperclassmen. Then, the victim would be lifted to his feet while a finger was forced into his rectum. Sometimes, the same finger was then shoved into the freshman player’s mouth.

Sayreville is one of the state’s football elites, sending players to Rutgers and other Division One colleges on a fairly regular basis. It is 67 percent white and a home to many working class ethnics who love their football. Commentators have asked, “Where were the authorities” when all this was going on. I strongly suspect that the coach knew about it and might have even encouraged it as a way of “toughening” up the players. Isn’t this in line with what happened to Miami Dolphin tackle Jonathan Martin? Richie Incognito might not have stuck his finger up his ass but he degraded him in other ways like calling him “my nigger” and warning him that he was going to go to his house and rape his sister.

In fact this pattern of abuse between players, between coaches and their players, and the players and innocent bystanders walking to class, is absolutely fundamental. This is a sport based on aggression. It is no accident that every Super Bowl is a Nuremberg rally for the American military.

If we ever have a socialist revolution in the USA, the first thing that should happen after the nationalization of the banks and the commanding heights of industry is the abolition of football, both professional and amateur.

A couple of months ago, Steve Almond’s “Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto” was published. It includes a chapter “All Games Aspire to the Condition of War”—that should give you an idea of where he is coming from. I am not sure if I will have time to read Almond’s book but would if I did based on an article that Almond wrote for the Village Voice a while back, one of the few worth reading in this putrid newsweekly.

The irony, of course, is that sports — and football, in particular — is no longer simply a form of entertainment. It has become something closer to a national religion, a form of devotion that shapes the emotional lives of millions of men and women and unites us as no other cultural activity can.

It is my own view, as a fan, that football weds the essential American virtues (courage, strength, perseverance, sacrifice) to our darker national impulses (conformity, militarism, competitiveness, regenerative violence). It is a brilliantly engineered athletic drama that offers us narrative complexity and primal aggression.

At the same time, football has become the nation’s most prominent growth industry. Commissioner Goodell — a man paid nearly $30 million in 2011 — has made no secret of his financial ambitions. The NFL reported revenues of about $10 billion last year. Goodell’s stated goal for the league is to generate $25 billion annually by 2027, which would put the NFL in the company of global behemoths such as Nike and McDonald’s. College football has followed the same eye-popping trajectory, which has, in turn, led to the rampant commercialization of the high school game.

As might be expected, this popularity has been reflected in the volume of media coverage the sport attracts. In an era of dwindling resources for straight news, football has become a dependable cash cow and a driving force in the expansion of the ESPN brand and sports punditry, in general. The most popular radio programs are now broadcast live on television.

Read the full article: http://blogs.villagevoice.com/runninscared/2014/08/against_football_author_steve_almond.php



  1. I enjoy watching football, gambling in suicide pools and playing in fantasy football leagues. I don’t believe players should receive a pass for criminal behavior nor do I think they should be held to higher standard. The NFL & NCAA are businesses. Maybe under socialism the profit motive will be removed from it and the hero worship it creates diminished. Sports should never mean this much to society. Didn’t the Romans use the coliseum as a way to keep citizens & slaves minds/attention from away from the empire’s decay?

    Comment by Jim Brash — October 13, 2014 @ 6:52 pm

  2. The problem is not football per se but the huge cash cow football has become. Every home game in Tallahassee, Ann Arbor, Columbus, or Knoxville generates over $10,000,000 for the University and the surrounding community. In order to protect that money and its continual flow it is mandatory a high quality competitive winning team is fielded. Everything else becomes subordinate; academic standing, a few felonies, a plethora of misdemeanors, and a conspiracy is entered into tacit rather than spelled out that the most important thing is to maintain the cash cow and the police in these college towns work as closely as they can with the administration and coaching staffs to that end. The Ivy league saw this coming in the mid 1950’s and stopped giving college scholarships for football. From the late 1800’s and for the next 40 years Yale, Harvard, Penn, Princeton, and Cornell were football powers in fact I believe Cornell is the only team with a winning record against Michigan in a series of over 15 games. The administrations of those teams saw the problems ahead and with their endowments didn’t need the headache and stepped back. The rest of them are like pigs at a trough and have you ever tried to get an eating hog away from his food, good luck.

    Comment by Michael Tormey — October 13, 2014 @ 7:08 pm

  3. Sorry ,disagree on this one,blaming a sport for the actions of humans is a big stretch.If you truly represent the working class and take away sports you will have an immediate counter-revolution.I f Socialism prevails have the teams run by city co-ops .

    Comment by Larry — October 13, 2014 @ 7:30 pm

  4. The Village Voice report was really informative for me. Football, the crystal meth of the masses. One thing that I am unclear about still is just what are the chances that an NFL football player who was a starter for say 12 years and a backup for three will have a brain disease when he is old?
    I know that serious knee and ankle and shoulder and neck injuries are so common that several happen in every game. I like to watch the sport but I do feel guilty about looking forward to a game of entertainment in which overwhelmingly African Americans get injured for my entertainment.
    Yes I would feel guilty if most of the players getting injured were white too but a little less so.
    My first choice would be to carry out reforms that make the game ethical but if that can not be done I would support efforts to ban it. We have banned dog fighting and in most places bull fighting and cock fighting and the contestants in these events are not even human. What does it mean to say that the game is ethical. Well I can not say what my opinion on this would be at this point because I have not studied it the problems.
    I do not think that it is possible to prevent many knee and ankle injuries. If that is the case would it be ethical if those who suffer knee and ankle injuries get well paid for pain and suffering? I think the answer might depend upon what type of society the offer is being made in. In a society in which the top one percent get 20 percent of the income and the bottom 20% get 4% of the income it might be unethical but a society in which the top one percent got 4,5% of the income and the bottom 20% got 12% of the income it might not be so unethical. In other words if the people playing the game are playing it primarily because they enjoy playing the game and the money is secondary I would be tempted to say that it is OK.

    Comment by Curt Kastens — October 13, 2014 @ 9:40 pm

  5. “The irony, of course, is that sports — and football, in particular — is no longer simply a form of entertainment. It has become something closer to a national religion, a form of devotion that shapes the emotional lives of millions of men and women and unites us as no other cultural activity can.

    It is my own view, as a fan, that football weds the essential American virtues (courage, strength, perseverance, sacrifice) to our darker national impulses (conformity, militarism, competitiveness, regenerative violence). It is a brilliantly engineered athletic drama that offers us narrative complexity and primal aggression.”

    This is precisely what the producers of the documentary about the Vietnam War, “Hearts and Minds”, said about football in their film released in 1975. They drew a direct connection between the violence, militarism and mass conformity associated with football and the brutality of the Vietnam War. In one sequence, they cut between a high school football game, replete with cheerleaders, and the aerial bombing of Vietnam. At the time, despite my incipient radicalism, I thought that it was a bit much, an act of cinematic aggro designed to antagonize the audience by challenging its romanticization of high school. Now, if anything, it is understated.

    Comment by Richard Estes — October 13, 2014 @ 11:07 pm

  6. Great post dude. There will be no professional sports in socialism

    Comment by fat lady — October 14, 2014 @ 12:15 pm

  7. If my income tax policies were inacted then everyone who has anything at all to do with pro football will be making a lot less money.
    In fact the owners would likely want to sell their teams to the players. Yet since fat middle class and upper middle class people have proven that they are willing to pay current ticket prices I see no reason that sales would drop off.
    With that in mind I can think of some changes that could be made in the short term that would perhaps help. First of all limit the number of games
    (or plays) that a player can take part in per year. As a starting off point we could say that at the high school level no more than 8 games per year, at the college level no more than 10 games per year and at the pro level no more than 12 games per year, play offs excepted. This means that the best teams will not be the ones with the best starting lines ups but the ones with the most depth. It will spread around the risks of injury to more people and it will provide more people a chance to get the reasonably good pay in the NFL and even what should be the good pay at the college level in the future. There would also be plenty of money available for good insurance programs for those players who do get injured.
    At the moment I can see that it will be difficult to address the criticisms of the connection of football to militarism and conformity and competitiveness and violence. I see a catch 22 here. Football is only important because we pretend that it is important. But, if we do not pretend that it is important the drama of the sport disappears. We could find drama in sports that cause fewer injuries but other sports do not succeed like football because each play is a mini drama that builds the drama of a game that builds the drama of a season that builds the drama of a franchise. In soccer, and basketball and hockey the games is not broken down into individual plays. Now baseball has individual plays that begin with a pitch. Yet baseball does not have quite the excitement level as football because in football the unexpected factor is higher.
    I still remember the play that got me hooked on football. It was Notre Dame against North Western in 1967. A defensive player intercepted the ball and ran it back about 80 yards. He was tackled about 5 yards short of the goal line and fumbled the football which was then recovered by the other team. Talk about twists and turns all in a matter of seconds. I do not know any sport that can beat that. But the question of what price we should be willing to pay for such dramatic entertainment is a fair one.

    Comment by Curt Kastens — October 14, 2014 @ 3:11 pm

  8. We see too few critiques of the football religion. It’s heartening to know one is not alone in football atheism.

    As to working-class sports culture, well, as Trotsky said, the thing to aspire to is not proletarian culture but socialist culture–not the same thing. It’s my experience that college football players and fans–by definition middle-class–are just as bad as, if not worse, than the professionals. The whole football cult is elitist to the core.

    As I understand it, football originally filtered down to the masses from the Ivy League, where it reinforced the elitist dogmas of muscular Christianity.

    Comment by Pete Glosser — October 14, 2014 @ 4:43 pm

  9. The NFL is a business, not a sport. Find me some sportsmanship in a NFL game. Football, which I once loved, has become a commercial gladiator spectacle for predator drone nation.

    For that matter, the United States’ now-permanent warfare produces daily murderous fireworks displays for our media that have become the new American spectator sport. Another spectacle/sporting event we can also enjoy is the next two years of conservatives and reactionaries fighting it out in the 2016 electoral campaign. Go, Hillary, Go! You and the Democrats can flat out go to hell, and the Republicans are going to sell you and the rest of the American people one-way tickets to your destination.

    It’s impossible to be a cynic in a globalized capitalist world.

    Comment by Joe Barnwell — October 14, 2014 @ 6:00 pm

  10. Football will dry up from the bottom on up as increasingly aware parents don’t let their male kids enter the pipeline in the peewee league. 10 years.

    Comment by Gulf Mann — November 17, 2014 @ 6:32 pm

  11. Mann, I am a genius. I just came up with a new rule that will cost nothing to implement and will save money. OK it might not save a lot of money but I fail to see how any sane person could turn down an idea that would give a 1000% return on investment. I call my rule the blowout rule. It would work like this. If any team in a football game is behind by 42 (or more of course) points in a game at the start of the second half they must be behind by 41 points or less after their first possession. If they are still 42 or more points behind the game is over. Furthermore any time a team goes up by more than 42 points in the third quarter the other team must bring it under 42 on their next possession or the game is over. In addition if a team is behind by 24 or more points at the beginning of the 4th quarter it must be behind by no more than 22 points at the end of its first possession in the fourth quarter or the game is over. Any time that a team takes a 24 point lead in the fourth quarter the other team must bring it under 22 on their next possession or the game is over. Is it neccessary for me to do the math?
    I think that anyone who would dare to oppose this rule should be stripped of their American citizenship and deported to the nearest border. Of course I do not think that people should lose their jobs for expressing stupid and dangerous ideas either. So what it boils down to as that such people will have a hell of a long commute from either Mexico or Canada.

    Comment by Curt Kastens — January 14, 2018 @ 4:09 pm

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