Jon Stewart’s NFL

Is the NFL the new tobacco industry for liberals? The movement against the tobacco industry intensified after it was revealed that the industry systematically lied about the dangers of smoking, which ultimately led to massive fines, increased regulation, regressive taxes mainly punishing the industry’s consumer victims, and a new sales focus emphasizing overseas markets (who cares if other people get lung cancer?). That is, the tobacco industry is still operating, and is doing quite fine, although mainstream US culture has been trained to disdain the industry with an emotional intensity that evokes Tocqueville’s description of the irrational tyranny of the American majority. As is often the case, the liberal accomplishment of demonizing and punishing a single industry has mainly functioned to preserve the good reputation of an entire system that is based on exploitation.

Like big tobacco before it, the NFL is currently facing unprecedented scrutiny after it was revealed that the league systematically lied about the effects of concussions and, more recently, about whether the league had viewed the instantly notorious video footage of Ray Rice assaulting his wife in an elevator. And as with the tobacco industry, the NFL’s problems go far deeper than this, as the league’s internal contradictions are threatening to rip the massively profitable enterprise apart at the seams.

Although television cameras direct viewers to watch quarterbacks, running backs, and receivers, the “beautiful” exploits of the game’s “skills players” are predicated on the brutal and relentless three hour battle between the offensive and defensive lines, whose outcome largely determines the final score. Nevertheless, almost all pro football players must routinely risk their physical (and mental, as concussions research proves) health in order to make and stay on a team, that is, in order to make a living (a process detailed among other places in Nate Jackson’s Slow Getting Up). As players have gotten bigger, stronger, and faster, the frequency and intensity of injuries have intensified, and a week can’t seem to go by without another player suffering a season-ending injury. With the increased strategic homogenization of the “copycat league,” today’s Superbowl champions are less distinguished by innovative play-calling or superior talent than by which team is the least beaten up by the time the playoffs start (former head coach Jerry Glanville once noted that at such an elite level there is little talent disparity between the best and worst teams, and the difference between winning and losing is instead primarily attributable to psychology). The Seahawks, for instance, destroyed the Broncos in the most recent Superbowl largely because Denver’s injury-riddled offensive line could not control Seattle’s defensive ends. With the league’s numerous efforts to alter tackling techniques mainly resulting in more injuries, the NFL has to wonder if the continuation of its injury epidemic is going to disillusion fans whose teams are often barely recognizable by season’s end.

The willingness to sacrifice one’s body – even to pay rent – does not come “naturally” to most people, and football coaches’ success is closely connected to their ability to convince players to “buy in” to grueling practices designed to provoke and channel players’ aggression toward achieving the game’s purpose: dominating other human beings in order to win games. Notably, players have frequently remarked that they are able to summon the will to sacrifice their well-being by “playing for teammates,” an admission that evokes war veterans who recall fighting not for country, cause, or officers, but their fellow soldiers. Accordingly, cultivating team chemistry is critical to success, for which coaches devise a variety of techniques. While the “team” is ultimately solidified in its confrontation with another team “in battle” – similarly to how the Englishman only came to think of himself as English (rather than a mere Christian or Londoner) when he confronted “Others” overseas – intra-team rivalries are both inevitable and integral to maximizing competitive performance. Denver coach John Fox, for instance, has recently noted that he doesn’t mind a few fights during training camp but that such aggression must be strategically harnessed for the greater good.

Here, the team’s hierarchies (facilitated by football’s rigid division of labor and player longevity – rookies are notoriously abused) parallel the hierarchy of a team’s corporate organization and ultimately the hierarchical arrangement of US society itself. Such hierarchies produce differences even when there are none, which is why it’s not merely the NFL but also US schools and workplaces (and of course prisons) that socialize their members through, albeit in varying kind and degree, structural bullying. Indeed, except for insulated liberals, nobody, not least football players, was shocked when news broke last year that (now former) Dolphins lineman Richie Incognito chronically harassed “weaker” teammates with homophobic, racist, and sexist slurs, and that football players have not yet adopted liberals’ politically correct etiquette in their private workplace interactions. That liberals are outraged by such poor form should not be too surprising since these are the same people who regularly invoke the concept of “humanitarian warfare” and who generally profit from brutality while insisting that those engaged in it be polite and, in their ideal universe, openly gay.

While the NFL tries to spin players’ scandals as the acts of “bad apples” who will accordingly be made lessons of, what’s shocking is that men who are required to be violent for a living aren’t violent off the field more often. Violence is the NFL’s raison d’etre if only because it is society’s. As such, the only guaranteed result of punishing Rice and Peterson is nothing other than the further legitimization of the idea that employers have the right to punish workers for what employers decide is unacceptable non-work behavior (players are also suspended for far less controversial misconduct, including marijuana smoking, and, in the recent case of Matt Prater, beer drinking).

Amid the league’s growing and seemingly unending scandals, liberals such as Jon Stewart are so angry that they even joke about boycotting the NFL – before meekly conceding that, unable to overcome their putative “fanaticism,” they will continue watching football after all. By admitting their own hypocrisy, liberals – no strangers to delusions of grandeur – suggest that it is they, the consumers, who are ultimately responsible for the league’s perpetuation and violence. Needless to say, liberals do not ask why if fans are so powerful they don’t do something about all of those damn commercials.

The NFL is, to be sure, concerned about its tarnished image and, specifically, parents’ growing wariness of the dangers of Pop Warner and high school football, which produce the players that the NFL will exploit tomorrow. However, even if the NFL were to disband, what makes liberals think that another exploitative and violent national spectacle won’t take its place? After all, what did it mean to devote energy and resources to attacking big tobacco while capitalism’s global warming threatens civilization itself? Floods might destroy our homes, but at least no one will be smoking? It is the failure to identify the existence of rapacious corporations as merely inevitable symptoms of a rapacious system that leads liberals to strengthen the latter through sacrificing the former. But this of course is not what matters to liberals, whose ultimate fealty is not to fundamental transformation but to the sanctimonious satisfaction of their own consciences.

Joshua Sperber has written about football, filmmediapolitical economythe left and fascism. He lives in New York and can be reached


Joshua Sperber teaches political science and history. He is the author of Consumer Management in the Internet Age. He can be reached at