For the NFL, the System is Still Working as Intended

We watch the games, feeling like we might have a dog in the fight. But they’ve already won. 

This week, it’s challenging to focus on much else besides the agonizing trickle of election results — the wait for the end of a literally years-long contest, one whose outcome is ultimately arbitrary. It’s a familiar cycle, one that has left so many people understandably cynical about politics as a whole: a whole array of promises that are impossible to keep, either because they’ve been made by people who will wind up hamstrung or because those people are even more cynical than their electorate — or both. 

It’s popular among those who believe the United States is a democracy to say “the system is broken;” it’s just as popular among those who don’t, or who believe that representative democracy can only amplify inequality instead of countering it, to say the system is working exactly the way it was designed. The persistence of the Senate and the electoral college are perhaps the most obvious evidence of the latter argument, two systems that are self-evidently unfair to anyone who doesn’t profit off oppression. 

Knowing how little will actually change for most people, the only reason so many of us really pay attention is the seduction of the game itself. The posturing and analyzing and hand-wringing about who will win or lose — who is better or worse — is titillating for people; the myth that it might make a difference even moreso. The stats, the primetime debates, the pre-and-post-mortems form the cable news-fed facade behind which the people with real money and power easily accrue more money and power. 

It’s not so different in America’s biggest sport, another monolithic system that continues to function unabated by our current unprecedented danger. Danger for workers is built into football, after all — they quip about the sport’s 100% injury rate, not only due to the likelihood of an ACL tear or broken arm but to the lifelong neural damage that was understood tacitly for decades before scientists made the obvious official.

football field lights

It only made sense, then, that the show would go on during a global pandemic under the mantle of “minimizing risk,” when it might have easily been eliminated. Said risk was only for workers; the alternative would have meant ownership risking some fraction of their billions. 

Now after weeks of players testing positive across the NFL — facing long term effects that are still mostly unknown — over a third of the league’s teams currently have one or more players or staff who have tested positive for COVID-19, as The Ringer’s Danny Heifetz noted. 

At the same time, safety regulations have only seemed to slacken; while some games were rescheduled earlier in the season after players tested positive, no postponements have been announced yet this week — despite the fact that Thursday Night Football, for example, featured the Niners and Packers, two teams with rosters decimated by COVID-19 positives. 

Instead of shutting things down, NFL squads with players in quarantine are being bolstered by their newly-enlarged practice squads: back-up bodies compensated at the league’s lowest rate. Eager for their shot in a league with notoriously slim odds of success, players have mostly swallowed the risk — even as examples like the Jaguars’ Ryquell Armstead, who is out for the season due to COVID-19 complications, make it tangible.

The danger in the NFL is being mirrored around the country, as the U.S. hurtles past its own COVID-19 records at an inconceivable rate. That was always going to happen: the same people run both, honing the systems they built on uneven ground to better profit off the work, and pain, of the majority. 

We watch the games, feeling like we might have a dog in the fight. But they’ve already won. 

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