Living and Dying in the Post-Trump NFL

NFL ratings are up, and figuring out what it all means compels us to ask some tough questions.

Every week in her Good Form column, Natalie Weiner explores the ways in which the sports world’s structural inequalities and injustices illuminate those outside it — and the ways in which they’re inextricably connected. You can read previous columns here.

It is strange that a straightforward observation like “NFL ratings are up” has come to bear so much political weight. And yet they are, so we are observing it and apparently trying to draw inferences about what that means

Football’s appeal has always extended to many different kinds of people, who watch for many different reasons. Any imagined prototypical football fan is inaccurate by virtue of that fact. Sure, if you go to an NFL tailgate you are — anecdotally — more likely to happen upon a middle-aged white man than people in most other demos, if only because that is the sort of person most likely to have the funds required to spend $15 for a beer. But to call him representative would be to erase literally millions of people, an average of 17.1 million per regular season game this year, who watch at home or out at restaurants and bars, gathering with family and friends to watch our most sanitized bloodsport. 

Who are those people? What do they believe? Why do ratings shrink and grow? Looming behind all of those is the bigger one: Is it ethical to watch football? In an era where so many aspects of the status quo are being challenged (perhaps more superficially than anything else, but still), can we abide the wide reach of football’s sinister, violent pipeline, the dangers integral to its false promise? 

flag nfl

Clearly we can. I am in that group, and have no real rebuttal to the argument that watching football goes against just about every one of my stated values and political beliefs. I tell myself that avoiding college football offers a bit of an ethical cheat code — at least the players are paid, and have a union, and aren’t so acutely being told that sacrificing brain cells is their only chance to succeed in the world — but the NFL has such a deeply vested interest in the popularity of college football that that’s basically splitting hairs. 

Whatever my own qualms and rationalizations, I am still effectively representative. The NFL is politically neutral at least insofar as people of nearly all political perspectives care about it. As a CNN piece noted this week, there is no correlation between how many people search for the NFL on Google in a given state and how that state voted in the 2020 election. Whether or not searching “NFL” on Google is a good metric for interest in the league and its viewership is certainly up for debate (it brings to mind Rob Lowe), but that data certainly follows what we already know which is that more people watch the NFL than they do anything else. The league is bipartisan in its insatiable capitalism, which is proof positive of the futility of both those parties and the system in which they bicker. 

The NFL’s growing ratings might be proof that Donald Trump was outmatched when he tried to direct his mobs towards the league. They could be evidence that as whatever perfunctory discussions the league was compelled to have about racism after its fields were the setting for some of the most impactful protests of our generation subsided into pointless helmet adornments, all the people who insisted they would never watch a “woke” NFL started trickling back. It’s impossible to know, and pretty pointless to try to figure it out; of course anyone who happens to be pro-Trump will say the protests kept them from watching, and that they returned to the game once they were over. Anyone against him will…argue that the NFL is too big to fail, I guess? An odd hill to die on, to be sure. 

The enormity and dominance of the NFL is more alarming than its being used as a confusing partisan political cudgel. NFL ownership donates to both political parties with more funds going to Republicans than Democrats, in predictable fashion — but again, it doesn’t really matter. They are all billionaires, and billionaires don’t believe that people like the ones I imagine to be reading this column are people. We are all just cogs in the machine that keeps them accruing wealth; to what ends, I don’t know. The NFL, for them, is a money-printing machine. Ratings ebb and flow, but profits are forever. 

NFL players are cogs too, and there’s no better reminder of that fact than the way the league handled the COVID-19 pandemic. In the midst of the Omicron surge, the league decided to stop testing players daily, a decision that is inevitably connected to the fact that they wanted all the stars to be available for playoff games. The image that will stick in my mind is vaccinated 22-year-old Micah Parsons, a Cowboys rookie, huffing on an oxygen tank in the first quarter of the team’s only playoff game this year four days after being taken off the reserve/COVID list. 

I don’t know if it had anything to do with the coronavirus, obviously; I’m not a doctor and I’m definitely not Micah Parsons’ doctor. But it was eerie and sad to see the defensive rookie of the year struggling — a reminder that whatever its “End Racism” sloganeering and military flyovers, the NFL’s only political allegiance that matters is green.