In this latest installment in our Authors on Issues series, Thomas P. Oates, author of Football and Manliness: An Unauthorized Feminist Account of the NFL, writes about the political and cultural force of the NFL.
The Political Football
By Thomas P. Oates
Over the past few months, there has been a lot of discussion about declining television audiences for the National Football League (NFL). By some estimates, ratings for NFL games were down by more than 10% during the 2017 regular season and playoffs. By any measure, however, the NFL is still a dominating force in contemporary television. NFL related programming accounted for 44 of the 100 most-watched shows in 2017, and drew the five largest audiences. About a hundred million viewers will likely tune in for Sunday’s broadcast of Super Bowl LII, which will probably make it the most watched program of 2018 by some distance.
But the Super Bowl is more than an opportunity for NBC to sell thirty second advertising slots at $5 million a pop. It is also an opportunity for NFL-licensed products to capitalize on their ties to the league, feeding off its visibility and cultural importance, while extending the fantasies and pleasures associated with pro football.
For example, video game developer EA Sports is using the Super Bowl to launch its new e-sports competition, the “Madden NFL Ultimate League.” This tournament that will run from February to April, with gamers competing through EA Sports’ officially licensed pro football video game Madden NFL. Using a designated team throughout the tournament, gamers compete for the championship and a $35,000 top prize. Viewers can watch the “action” on Disney XD, ESPN’s Video on Demand Service and ESPN2.
Following an established pattern of Madden NFL promotions, this new e-sports league seeks to create imaginative links between the glamorous world of professional football and the much less valorized culture of video gaming. As one EA executive put it in a statement to the press, “The Madden NFL Ultimate League is purposefully designed to make superstars out of our best players, allowing viewers to develop player loyalties and follow competitor rivalries.” In other words, the Ultimate League is being marketed to fans in ways that borrow from and build on the modes of engagement that already animate their interest in the sport.
Although marketed as escapist entertainment, these pleasures do not exist apart from political realities. The NFL provides perhaps U.S. culture’s most visible celebration of hegemonic masculinity, and highlights a black/white binary with deep resonances in the nation’s history. Black players make up approximately two-thirds of NFL players, but white men remain a solid majority of coaches, executives, owners, and media workers. Such dynamics mean that the “realistic” pleasures like those offered by Madden NFL are inevitably entangled with the complex historical power dynamics of race and masculinity.
For instance, the Ultimate League’s finals will be held at the NFL Draft – a once obscure meeting where teams claim contract rights to eligible college players, and now a major media spectacle covered live by both ESPN and the NFL Network. Like media coverage of the draft, Madden invites audiences to assess NFL players as potential investments – raw materials that might be molded into valuable assets. Like the team executives deciding what prospects to select in the draft, gamers participating in the Madden Ultimate League must work within a set budget to assemble a roster of (mostly Black) NFL talent. At the draft, the language of commodity markets: upsides, busts, and sleepers, mix easily with frank assessments of athletic bodies and their capacities in ways that revive ways of looking from the not so distant past.
The politics of race and masculinity have been unusually pronounced this past NFL season, as several players demonstrated during the pre-game national anthem to protest institutional violence against Black men. The protesters, most of them also Black men, received a torrent of criticism from white mainstream commentators, including President Donald Trump, who famously referred to the protesters as “sons of bitches,” and suggested they should be fired.
The 2017-18 season comes to a close on Sunday, and many will remember it as a year in which NFL entertainment was suddenly politicized. Others will point to the ratings decline and suggest that the league has lost its place at the center of the national culture. But these claims miss an important truth: for better or worse, the NFL remains a potent force in U.S. cultural life, and it is profoundly political, especially when the politics blend seamlessly with the entertainment.