The NFL Scandals Don’t Matter
by Benjamin Studebaker
I’ve recently watched the season premiers of two shows I like to watch–South Park and Saturday Night Live. Both shows were returning after a long hiatus, but rather than lampoon the intervention against ISIS, the crisis in Libya, the conflict in Ukraine, or global indifference to climate change, both shows chose to lead off with the recent scandals in the NFL, with South Park making fun of the Washington Redskins name controversy, while SNL mocked the league’s indifference to the domestic violence committed by players Ray Rice (punched his fiancee in an elevator) and Adrian Peterson (beat his kid with a switch), among others. My Facebook feed is dominated by this stuff. This is really unfortunate, because it is yet another case of the American voting public being distracted from the serious issues by soap opera outrage politics.
Now, let me be clear–don’t get it twisted–domestic abuse is an extremely serious crime, whether it happens to spouses or children. The US Department of Justice estimates that 1.3% of women and 0.9% of men get abused by their partners each year. That’s millions of people. Every year there are 3 million reports of child abuse in the US involving as many as 6 million children, and on average 4.5 children die every day from abuse. Anyone who commits abuse should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, and the fact that millions of people are still abused every year in the United States is a grave social problem that the state needs to address.
But that’s the thing–the NFL is not the state. The NFL is an employer, like McDonald’s or Microsoft. It exists to generate revenue for the people who own it–the owners of the various NFL teams. There are millions of people who commit abuse every year, and presumably many of them get away with it. Many of them have jobs, and until they are convicted and thrown in prison, many of them do not lose their jobs or get suspended. If Bob who works at Wal-Mart slugs his wife and there’s a video of it, Wal-Mart doesn’t fire Bob until Bob can no longer do his job because he’s incarcerated. Provided Bob can still perform his job competently, it’s not Wal-Mart’s job to engage in ad hoc law enforcement. Wal-Mart is not the police. It’s not a judge or a jury. It must abide by the law, but Wal-Mart does not have the authority to enforce the law, to decide what is a crime and what is not, and so on. When we read about abuse suspects in the newspapers or hear about these cases on TV, we do not bother to look up who these individuals’ employers are, and we certainly do not demand that their employers punish them. This is not because we don’t take abuse seriously, but because we recognize that this is the state’s job. This is why we have a legal system–to identify, catch, convict, and incarcerate people who do awful things.
This is not to say that this legal system is perfect–as I said before, millions of people get abused every year, and we should be trying to reduce those figures. But we should do this by enacting helpful policies–by improving education, policing, mental health, social safety nets, and so on. We don’t do this by asking employers to play at being the government. If we do so, we get an arbitrary and authoritarian system where individual employers pick out whatever penalties they think will get the public lynch mob off their backs. It is for this reason that the NFL can decide to suspend Rice 2 games, then change its mind and suspend him indefinitely. It is for this reason that the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) can let Hope Solo off the hook for the same crime. The NFL and the NWSL do not exist to make or enforce laws or to otherwise provide for the public good. They exist to generate revenue for the people who own the teams. Any benefit they confer upon the general public is entirely incidental to their purpose. The NFL punished Rice more not because it has developed any real substantive institutional beliefs about domestic violence but because there were lots of people demanding it and the NFL is concerned that bad press will reduce revenue. The NWSL ignored what Solo did because it generated less public outrage and because the NWSL is a struggling league and Solo is one of its biggest stars. To ask these leagues to do anything else is to ask them to take on a social role that they are not institutionally structured to handle. Corporations, leagues, and businesses of all kinds promote people because they are good at generating revenue, not because they are astute moral philosophers who have a strong conception of the public good.
We are entitled to expect the people who work for the state–an organization with explicit moral purposes–to act like role models. Cops, teachers, politicians, all of these people should be held to rigorous moral standards because their jobs entail making irreducibly moral and ethical judgments. Correspondingly, we are entitled to expect that kind of behavior from churches, charities, and other organizations with explicit moral pretensions. Being an athlete or a McDonald’s fry cook or a Wal-Mart greeter or a Microsoft programmer is not like that. These companies exist explicitly and exclusively for the purpose of generating revenue. As former NBA superstar Charles Barkley put it long ago, he is not a role model:
In all the chatter about the NFL scandals, we’re not hearing anybody propose meaningful policy reforms the state could enact to actually reduce the incidence of domestic abuse. We just continue to hear about what the NFL should do, and how ashamed NFL commissioner Roger Goodell should be. Why should Goodell be ashamed? He’s not a priest, he’s not a politician, he’s not a cop, he’s not a teacher. He’s a commissioner of a sports league. His job is to generate revenue for the owners. Since Goodell became commissioner in 2006, he’s done that job adequately–revenue is up 46%:
And the NFL’s share of the total revenue of the 4 major US sports leagues (the NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL) has actually grown under his tenure. In 2006, the NFL controlled 37.8% of the 4 leagues’ total revenue:
As of 2013, the NFL’s share had increased to 40.1%, by far the largest relative gain by any of the 4 leagues during the period:
That Goodell has been able to do this even as mounting scientific evidence shows that American football turns players’ brains to mush is astounding. If and when the NFL ceases to dominate the US sports landscape, it will likely be due to health and safety concerns, not these scandals.
The NFL is doing exactly what it exists to do–make money for the billionaire owners who run the teams. The players only get paid as much as the NFL has to pay them to keep them satisfied. The public is only entertained insofar as it continues to buy the tickets, merchandise, and advertisements that keep revenue flowing to the owners. I get that many people have a romantic view of sports. Bill Simmons, the biggest sports columnist in the country and the founder of Grantland.com, certainly has that view, and he expresses it well. But if you want your sports leagues to act like they’re part of the government, you’ve got to nationalize them or pass laws further constraining their behavior.. As long as they’re private entities run by billionaire owners, this is what they are, this is what they do, and if you expect anything more, you’re going to be disappointed. They will only penalize players and owners the minimum amount necessary to shut you up and ensure that you keep throwing money at them.
In the meantime, the state is trying to deal with a large number of serious issues–ISIS, Libya, Ukraine, unemployment, climate change, and yes, domestic abuse–and the gossip and outrage we throw at the NFL does absolutely nothing to help any of the victims of these problems (indeed, it screws over Ray Rice’s then-fiancee now-wife, who needs her husband to play and make money so that when she inevitably realizes he’s a terrible person and divorces him she gets a nice settlement). All our outrage does is make us feel better about ourselves, and it shouldn’t, because as you’re reading this piece or any piece about the NFL scandals, the real problems continue to make people miserable and get them killed. Every week there’s at least one story like this. A story that doesn’t matter, but gets everyone worked up. A story that distracts us while the world burns. Every week we get tempted to pay attention to it, and I get tempted to write about it to get people to read this blog. Sometimes I fall victim, as do many of you, I suspect, but we’ve got to do our best to stay focused on the things that matter. It’s easy to forget from behind our computer screens, but the problems we’re reading and/or writing about absolutely devastate thousands, millions, even billions of real people in the real world. We all can only spend so much time trying to make a difference in whatever ways we can. Let’s not squander it, okay?