The Shameful Triumph of Football

It's not simply that America's favorite sport is both shameful and popular. In fact, it's actually becoming more shameful and more popular at the same time.

Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY Sports

By the numbers, it was yet another historic year for America's most beloved sport. The start of the college-football playoffs drew the largest audience in the history of cable television, when 28.2 million viewers tuned in to watch Oregon rout Florida State. That record would be broken three hours later, when Ohio State upset Alabama before an audience of 28.3 million.

Meanwhile, professional football continues to shine on live television, at a time when scripted shows are increasingly time-delayed, streamed away from the big screen, or ignored altogether. One illustration of the NFL's dominance over its primetime counterparts is this graph from September, which used Nielsen data to compare the NFL's top primetime broadcasts to the most popular non-sports shows over the last decade (NFL ratings have not changed much in the last year).

In Primetime, Football Wins in a Blowout

As Atlantic readers are no doubt keenly aware, football's commercial success as an entertainment product stands in sharp contrast to its abject failure as a moral (or medical) icon. College football is a $7 billion industry whose employees not only earn no salary, but also have been explicitly barred from using their nationally recognizable names to earn a meager cent off the field, as Taylor Branch wrote in his magnificent 2011 story for The Atlantic, "The Shame of College Sports." The great shame of the professional league is not that its athletes aren't paid on the field (they are, and quite well) but rather that they're not properly compensated off the field for their gridiron injuries. One report estimated that as many as one-third of NFL players can expect to suffer major injuries to their minds or bodies after their retire. If the same were true of any other major employer—say, Walmart—this would amount to hundreds of thousands of disabled senior citizens, and Americans would take to the streets with placards, instead of taking to the parking lots with grills.

But these facts were mere background noise for 2014's cacophony of scandal. Indeed, by every non-numerical indicator, last year was uniquely disastrous for the game. Heisman-winner Jameis Winston's off-the-field behavior—rape allegations, petty theft, a brief suspension for obscenity—stalked a league already burdened with lawsuits from former athletes and an attempt by Northwestern players to unionize. In the NFL, the best running back was suspended for whipping his son with a branch, domestic abuse cases seemed to materialize weekly, and the Ray Rice saga exposed the commissioner to be exactly as dense and cynical as many already feared.

It's not just that America's favorite sport is both shameful and popular. In fact it's becoming more shameful and more popular at the same time.

To be a self-aware American football fan today is to commit an act of deliberate compartmentalization. I know, because I'm guilty of it. Like most of my male friends from high school and college, I am a passionate professional football fan (who also watched both record-setting college football games on New Year's Day). Are football fans like me simply in denial about football's injustices, or are there more complex reasons for the sport's unsinkable popularity during a time of relentless scandal? I have three theories, but please consider them incitements rather than conclusions.

1) The I'd-Prefer-Not-to-Think-About-It Theory. Some fans aren't making the connection between the game's off-the-field embarrassments and its on-the-field contests, because ... they'd just rather not. It's too hard. They simply store the bad news about concussions and domestic abuse (etc.) in some attic of their brain, which they keep locked up when football appears on television. This is the attitude lots of people take toward celebrities (e.g.: Bill Cosby, R. Kelly, Woody Allen). Entertainment, for many people, is all about turning your brain off, so one shouldn't be surprised when the public's attitude toward sports and culture seems brainless.

2) The Hate-Congress-But-Love-Your-Congressman Theory. You've heard the line that people hate Congress, but love their Congress(wo)man. It explains why incumbents can survive election after election despite working for an organization that enjoys single-digit approval ratings. Amanda Lotz, an associate professor in the department of communication studies at the University of Michigan, says NFL fans are practicing the same mental acrobatics when they watch football:

We might think of people as NFL fans, but they are really fans of a team, not the League. There may be real discontent with the actions of the league or the actions of a player, but it is a difficult move to deny fanship of a team as a result. We are Chiefs or Steelers fans, not NFL fans. The dynamics between team and individual sports is also a consideration. Though we may have fondness for particular players, that’s not what draws us in the case of the NFL either.

It isn’t domestic violence that is being broadcast on Sundays. Even though women and men may feel strongly that the acts were criminal and that the league was wrong to cover them up, it is difficult for that to override what might be a lifetime of fan behavior and one often linked closely to identity of place and family. As for women in particular, I wonder how many of those are individual women viewers. If other members of the household are watching and that is a family ritual, that too makes behavior change difficult.

3) The Invisible Queasiness Theory. Football's ratings aren't falling, but that doesn't mean the sport has eluded its scandals without accumulating some invisible damage.

There was a time when I couldn't name the NFL commissioner, when I didn't think about the quality of my favorite players' marriages, and when I rooted for the hearty clack of a linebacker crushing a wide receiver crossing the middle of a field. Today, however, I consider Roger Goodell an embarrassment to the league, wince at big hits, and quietly root for my favorite non-quarterback players to retire before 30 to avoid long-term damage to their brains and bodies ... all while watching football games. Although I can't bring myself to stop tuning in on Sundays, I also can't quite stop thinking about the game's ugly consequences for players and their families. It's possible that there are millions of fans like me out there, but the media can't report our internal angst because there is no mid-game number to report. There is no Nielsen rating for Median Audience Level of Moral Anxiety.

But just because you can't measure something doesn't mean it isn't consequential. My former colleague Alexis Madrigal likes to say that when a media organization violates its audience's trust, the company doesn't suddenly explode like a volcano. Instead it wilts slowly, at first even imperceptibly, like a tire with a small hole, whistling a current of air until the driver suddenly realizes that his wheels have deflated beyond use. You can't see football's moral disintegration if you just look at the numbers. But that doesn't prove that fans don't care. Maybe they're just starting to think.