The Distraction that is the NFL

The Distraction that is the NFL

Pity the poor NFL owners.

Scratch that. Scratch all of that.

No owner of an NFL franchise is poor.

And pity . . . “sympathetic sorrow for one suffering, distressed or unhappy”  . . . I think I’ll save that for our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

But I do feel some nagging . . . what is it? . . . empathy for NFL owners in this moment.

At the most basic level, they are just business owners. The players are their employees. The relationship between owners and employees is, at root, a purely economic transaction. Owners pursue profit; employees are means of production.

What makes the NFL as a business different is that some of the workers have real market power. They are vastly more valuable to the profitability of the business than most talented IT directors, product development professionals or marketing wizards. They are not interchangeable parts in the mass production of entertainment. Indeed, in some senses they are the product.

So when Colin Kaepernick and other sports entertainment “workers” took the knee, dealing with their conduct as an owner was very different than it would be in most other employment situations.

And when Colin Kaepernick became a free agent (that is, unemployed), there was much greater public interest in his employment future than in most unemployed individuals. When no one hired Kaepernick, some fans walked away, refusing to be entertained by an industry that, as they saw it, had punished a player for his race and his act of courage.

All of this happened before President Trump pumped moist heat into the Category Three storm brewing in the already steamy waters of American race relations, helping create a Category Five monster.

NFL owners this weekend had a range of options.

They could do nothing, letting players do whatever they liked.

Alternatively, they could have ordered their players to stand, hands over their hearts . . . even to sing (or at least mouth the words). Whatever the law might say, I have known owners of other businesses who gave comparable orders and fired the noncompliant.

Or . . . they could have bristled at the president’s use of their industry as a political football and sought to make a strong public statement of unity in diversity, of race and of opinion.

As the owners prepared for the storm roaring into the stadiums this weekend, they must have known that anything they did would alienate some segment of their customer base. And clearly, to hear the jeers from some attendees and to watch the videos of burning season tickets and NFL memorabilia, the damage done by that alienation has been substantial.

All of this is, of course, an absurd distraction. We have so much more important things to worry about than whether men and women of different races experience the exercise of political and economic power over their lives differently, about what are appropriate and effective ways to communicate differences of opinion and solidarity with others, over the nature of the stirrings in one’s heart and gut at the soaring notes of “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

Then again . . . maybe this isn’t a distraction at all.