Football’s Fourth Quarter?

Peyton Manning, renowned for his legendary career as quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts and the Denver Broncos, has retired. His 18 years in the league made him sole owner of the NFL’s most completion yards and passing touchdowns records, as well as a two-time Super Bowl champion. That fame plastered his face first across billboards, then local advertisements, then national television segments. If the NFL is a social phenomenon “that owns a day of the week,” then Peyton Manning is a cultural icon, nigh a god. But if the NFL is as backwards and recalcitrant as the recent film Concussion would have us believe, then Peyton Manning couldn’t be a more fitting public face for the NFL.

Concussion is a recent Hollywood film centered on Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) and the NFL. The film’s protagonist, Dr. Bennet Omalu, along with other associates discovered CTE in the early 2000’s. Ultimately, Omalu linked CTE to the repetitive hits to the head that football players endure during the course of normal game play. In 2007 the NFL was directly presented with Omalu’s findings, and that same year league affiliated physician, Dr. Ira Casson, categorically stated that there was no link between concussions and later mental health concerns. This movie outlines the NFL as, at best, reactionary and, at worst, negligent to a near criminal degree.

It is true that Manning is a future hall of famer and one of the best football players to ever play the game. It is also true that Manning has a disquieting past of his own. After this year’s Super Bowl, a story from Manning’s college years at the University of Tennessee resurfaced. In 1996, Manning was accused of placing “his bare buttocks and genitalia” on a female athletic trainer’s face. Manning was 19 years old at the time of the alleged incident. He settled with the trainer in question for $300,000 and she left Tennessee in 1997, having signed a confidentiality agreement. One year later, Manning would be selected first overall by the Indianapolis Colts in the 1998 NFL Draft. And the rest, so they say, is history.

The Manning narrative is, simply put, the narrative of the NFL as a whole. Both are steeped in Americana, prowess, accomplishment, machismo and undeniable sin. Both expiate guilt with ease and are championed as examples of how hard work translates promise into reality. Both seem increasingly out of their depth in today’s cultural environment, as the culture of violence slowly goes out of vogue. But, to demonize the man or the league is to harp on in the same weary soprano heard too many times before. Instead of striving, piece-by-piece, to remake and remodel the NFL for today’s world — or tomorrow’s — perhaps Americans ought to consider if this cultural icon has any place at all. It would be naïve and unrealistic to suggest that the US disband the NFL or ban the sport of football. Rather, the American public should reconsider the holy place football holds in its cultural zeitgeist. Maybe the league ought to follow the path of one of its greatest players and step down from its long-standing place of honor. It seems as though the benefits of the NFL no longer outweigh the cost of its cult and culture of violent masculinity.

This claim is couched in recent victories scored by progressive movements. From the legalization of gay marriage to a decreasing gap in wage disparity between men and women, various progressive movements have scored landmark triumphs, both in the court of law and the court of public opinion. Over the last fifteen years, the percentage of Americans who favor gay marriage has steadily increased while the number that oppose gay marriage has steadily fallen. These successes are signposts of progressive trends. Ultimately, they signify the increasingly irreparable rift between the NFL and the public it seeks to entertain.

Consider gay marriage. While it has been definitively legalized and a vast majority of Millennials believes in marriage equality, the NFL is seemingly far less accepting. It is true that Michael Sam became the first openly gay man to play in the league just two years ago. Yet Sam is no longer in the league, despite being named defensive player of the year in arguably the best conference in college football during his senior season. For reference, Sam is the only winner to have played less than two full seasons since 2005. Additionally, seven of the eight previous winners were selected in the first round of the NFL draft. Sam was selected in the seventh. Perhaps Sam’s draft measurables, like 40 yard-dash time and height and weight, rather than his sexual orientation explain his curtailed NFL career.

Instead of striving, piece-by-piece, to remake and remodel the NFL for today’s world — or tomorrow’s — perhaps Americans ought to consider if this cultural icon has any place at all.

This explanation, however, ignores that these measurements occur in a vacuum; Sam’s on-field production was still elite and perhaps stood as a better indicator of his potential as a professional player than his measurables did. But as recently as February of 2016, the NFL had to reprimand an official with the Atlanta Falcons for thinly veiled homophobia. The official in question asked a draftee at the NFL combine, an event designed to determine a college player’s potential for success in the professional ranks, if he “liked men” because “if you’re going to come to Atlanta…you’re going to have to get used to [gay men].” The incident from February of this year is particularly damning, as it seemingly supposes that heterosexuality is mandated for success in the NFL.

But it doesn’t end with gay rights.

Consider the elephant in the room: violence. It is here that the NFL seems most troubled. Players like Ray Rice and Greg Hardy were arrested for allegedly perpetrating domestic abuse against their spouses. Rice was assessed a two-game suspension by the league. Both Rice’s coach and the owner of his team came to his defense even after video surfaced of Rice assaulting his then-girlfriend. In the aftermath of the Rice incident, the NFL altered its suspension policy for instances of domestic violence, mandating a minimum six game suspension for first time offenders. Yet Hardy, like Rice before him, was assessed a relatively short suspension of four games, instead of the original ten the NFL prescribed. Hardy allegedly choked his then-girlfriend before throwing her on a sofa covered with assault rifles, though it must be noted that the case before him was dismissed in North Carolina state court. Hardy was also publically defended by the owner of his team, who described him as a “real leader” and a respected player in the locker room. These instances demonstrate a seeming disrespect of women’s rights by players, coaches, team owners and the NFL itself. This disrespect is antithetical to increasingly prevalent national attitudes that actually call for increased efforts to further close the gap between women and men.

Nevertheless, the NFL does, indeed, try to affect some positive change in the greater cultural landscape of the US. For example, the Play60 initiative encourages children to engage in rigorous physical activity in a bid to reduce childhood obesity. Further, it has long been noted that encouraging families to introduce children to sports — ranging from soccer to basketball to football — lowers the incidence of gang involvement and gang violence. These efforts, however, are inherent to football as a sport and have little to do with the NFL as an organization. Ultimately, any number of major sports leagues — or other visible outlets — could deliver the same message.

Though it is both unfair and impossible to ask the NFL to act with ideological purity, it is not irresponsible to demonstrate how the league is complicit in furthering entrenched cultural values that ought to be changed. This distinction is key. These issues have always lurked, unnoticed or unspoken, within the sport of football. These issues are inseparable from football’s entertainment value: the same ferocity praised on a Thursday or Sunday or Monday night is not so easily switched on or off. Further as exposés like Concussion have elucidated, this violence inexorably alters the men that take the field and perpetrate it. And in its wake, this culture of viciousness sometimes leaves behind or simply ignores battered spouses and latent homophobia. As access to opportunities and the protection of rights are advanced and expanded for all Americans, it seems that the inherent value of the NFL as a positive force has decreased. The more progressive our cultural climate becomes, the more the NFL seems like a dated institution.