The NFL is set to haul in $14 bn this year. But the league is beset by racially charged protests, credit ratings dip and players brain damaged by the contact sport
William Walter “Pudge” Heffelfinger was America’s first pro football player: he earned $500 for a single game for Pittsburgh’s Allegheny Athletic Association in 1892. Thirteen years later, he saved the game itself. In 1905, Teddy Roosevelt was under pressure to ban football after several much-publicized player demises. But Pudge, a friend of the president, is thought to have talked Roosevelt into giving the game a second chance, suggesting the introduction of padding and helmets and prohibiting some brutal” animal piling” tactics such as the flying wedge.
Given current events in the US, many Americans may wish they had a chairman like Roosevelt. And as storms swirl around the country’s most profitable league, many in the NFL wish they had an advocate like Pudge. It’s an ominous sign when most of the publicity concerning America’s richest league- its revenue is expected to reach $14 bn this season– isn’t about athletics. As much as the league office would like to shift the conversation away from racial politics, domestic violence and the perception of declining quality of play, these and other issues dog the NFL as it prepares for the opening game of the season on Thursday night.
On the first day of the season , no NFL team has signed Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49 ers quarterback who led them to the Super Bowl in 2013. Last year, Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the national anthem in protest of the treatment of African Americans sparked a national disagreement and touched a nerve in the NFL, in which virtually 70% of the players are black.
Kaepernick’s stand has polarized NFL fans in the same style the Trump presidency has America. Groups of( mainly) white fans have lobbied squad proprietors not to sign him, saying his protest humiliations military veterans and the flag. On the other side, his supporters say squads are guilty of blackballing a player who has made a stand against racial injustice. Last month, the dispute literally landed on the NFL’s doorstep: a crowd of supporters rallied outside league headquarters in Manhattan waving signs that read” Hey NFL, grannies say thank you Colin Kaepernick” and” Should speaking out against injustice cost you your job ?”
But the Kaepernick issue is far from the league’s only problem. Domestic violence is not new to football. In 1994, the Washington Post reported that 140 current and former professional or college football players had been reported to police for violent acts against women from 1989 to 1994 alone. Then, in 2014, in the wake of public outcry against NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s light punishment of the Baltimore Ravens’ Ray Rice, who was caught on video punching his girlfriend, the league adopted a much tougher policy against domestic violence cases, including the provision that a player can be disciplined even if he is not legally charged.