I have been struggling a lot with my NFL fandom in recent years. It started with the whole Kaepernick saga a few years ago, when the racist underbelly of the NFL and their fans was brought to light. I wrote about it at this time so I will spare you my follow up thinkpiece. But that was when I really started to think about the NFL as an institution and whether it was one I wanted to support. Whether they upheld values that I care about. And the answer was clearly not. Up until that point, I never questioned the integrity of the league. I was another blind follower. It was football, after all. Sure, it was unfair sometimes. Plays didn’t go your way, or your favorite player would get suspended for deflating footballs. But it was unfair in the context of the game. But the Kaepernick clusterfucker made me consider that the NFL is much more than a game, and I called into question how committed I was willing to be. I couldn’t just not be an NFL fan. I love the game of football. I love the New England Patriots. I’m in like 3 fantasy football leagues. I’m in way too deep. The two biggest prevailing stories in the run up to the season have been the Andrew Luck retirement saga and Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliot holding out for a new contract with 2 years left on his rookie deal. And I think these two stories have been the perfect encapsulation of the captive nature of NFL fans and it’s players.
First, the Andrew Luck story. You can gripe all you want about how he didn’t give enough notice or about the embarrassing send off the Colts faithful gave him in his final preseason game or the criminal negligence of management in mishandling his offensive line over the years. But the real story here is one of the leagues premier young talents decided to hang it up because of long term injury concerns sustained playing football. This man has been basically perpetually injured for the bulk of his career. His job has become pretty much full time rehab. Sounds fucking terrible if you ask me. He wants to live the rest of his life pain free. How can you blame someone for that? You can bitch and moan all you want, a la Dan Dakich or Doug “Sticky Hands” Gottlieb, about millennial work ethic and the troops and first responders and toughness and “back in my day” and blah blah blah. It’s easy to take pot shots from the safety of your living room or analyst desk, when you have absolutely nothing on the line other than your already hackish reputation. The takes come fast and furious and full of rancor from those with no skin in the game. These morons clearly just want something to talk about on their radio shows and tv segments, but the core of these awful, condescending takes is that the NFL and the NFL machine do not want players like Andrew Luck. They do not want players who think for themselves and put their own health over “the team”. People capable of thinking logically and long-term about the toll football takes on a man. And Luck certainly isn’t the first one to make this decision.
Rob Gronkowski, the leagues greatest tight end of all time, decided to hang it up last season at the ripe old age of 30 for precisely the same reason as Luck. At a recent appearance for a new CBD partnership Gronk was literally in tears describing the pain he was in following last years Super Bowl. It was heart breaking watching the unfailingly chipper and childishly energetic Gronk fighting back tears trying talk about how he couldn’t sleep for weeks after the Super Bowl because he was in so much pain. And much like Luck, all offseason the talking heads of the NFL machine speculated about what week Gronk would be back on the field, about how long he could stay retired before he got the itch to return. Never mind the fact that this guy hadn’t played a full season in 7 of his 9 seasons between several concussions and a torn ACL and myriad other injuries. Zero concern about any long term health effects.
Which brings me to Zeke. They do not want players like Ezekiel Elliot who is at the tender age of 24, not even at the end of his rookie deal, already seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. In todays NFL running backs are the most expendable players on the field. Teams have begun to catch onto the running back by committee meat grinder approach Bill Belichick has been deploying for years. It’s as simple as it is brutal. You draft a top tier running back to get him on a cheap, non-guaranteed 4 year rookie deal, run him into the ground, and the moment he falls off, can’t stay healthy, or decides he wants more money, you move on to the next guy. And running backs have a uniquely punishing role on the field that makes them prime for injury.
These guys basically have a four year expiration date. Zeke knows this. The fucked up thing is that Jerry Jones and the Cowboys know all this as well. They don’t want to pay him. They have the best line in football. Jerry himself could rush for 1,000 yards running behind those behemoths. It’s all a show. They’ll say he’s been a headache off the field (which he has) and they have other priorities (Dak Prescott) and then Old Jerry will blink is because he’s old as fuck and would in a heartbeat trade one of his dumb ass sons for a championship before he croaks. He’ll give Zeke his money but not after the requisite amount of bitching and moaning and slandering his name in the media and humiliation on a national scale. Zeke might be dumb, but he’s not an idiot. For all he knows, he could be washed out of the league in two years. He needs to get his money now, because it’s probably not going to be there when he’s 28 or 29. Le’Veon Bell was the best running back in football in 2017 and at age 26 he held out an entire season because the Steelers wouldn’t give him a multiyear deal. Melvin Gordon, bless his heart, is holding out for a similar paycheck as well. It’s a tale as old as time that will be repeated ad infinitum as long as there are young running backs being ran into the ground.
The problem is that the economics of the NFL do not work for most players. There are about 1,700 players in the NFL in a given season. The average NFL career is about 3 seasons, according to the NFLPA (the league claims its 6 years). The average NFL salary is about $2.1 million per season. But they don’t get that all at once. They get 17 game checks worth about $125k before taxes. After taxes, that probably leaves about $75k per game check. Annually that’s only about $1.275 million. If they invested their entire salary, which they certainly aren’t, assuming a generous 5% return that’s only about $65k per year off of interest. Is that enough to live off the rest of your life? Is that enough to sacrifice your body and your mind, to throw yourself into the meat grinder?
Then what happens after you retire? A very, very small percentage will live the rest of their lives as wealthy people. Maybe 150ish players per year, only the very best players, who are making north of $5 million a season. They will be sitting pretty. Maybe a handful of them will go on to be on tv or get high profile coaching gigs after they retire and keep earning. These aren’t the players we necessarily have to worry about. What about Average Joe, a journeyman who played 4 seasons, who made about $6-7 million, who is 28 and has never had a real job, who graduated college with a degree majoring in football. Was that $6-7 million worth it? Was that $6-7 million worth possible brain damage? Debilitating, lifelong injuries? Waking up in pain every morning? This is the vast, overwhelming majority of players who were in the NFL. When it comes down to it, the NFL is pure bloodsport. A modern day gladiatorial combat. Perhaps not as viscerally brutal as the gladiator battles of old were, but the results are ultimately the same. Men killing each other for entertainment. The only way to survive, to make it worth it, is to win. At all costs. To be the best.
This winning at all costs mentality starts at the top, and of course it starts and ends with money. Owners only care about being profitable, and the best way to be profitable is to win a bunch of games. There are other ways to do it, such as own a team in a large media market or get your city to build you a taxpayer funded stadium to host other events, but those are more difficult. Winning games is by far the easiest method to making a shitload of money. So to win a bunch of games, you hire the best coaches. You can’t just throw money at players, because there is a salary cap, and there are diminishing returns on talent. The main differentiator between good teams and bad teams is coaching. And it’s been proven time and time again that the most successful coaches are only concerned with what’s happening right now, the present moment. The best coaches are singularly focused on winning next weeks game. The job requires that they do not focus on anything farther than one week in the future, because for all they know everything could change between now and then. Which begets the winning at all costs philosophy that leads to this meat grinder approach. Unfortunately the coaches cannot help this. There are just a deep into it as the players. Their livelihoods are at stake. If they want to keep their job, they have to win games. They are trapped just like the players are trapped. They too most likely played football and graduated with communications degrees despite attending zero actual classes. If they can’t coach, they can’t really do anything other than become an analyst. They are forced to do the bidding of the owner class, therefore the owners interests are their own.
For that reason they want mindless drones, content with sacrificing their youth and bodies and minds for a team and institution that will cut you loose at a moments notice. They want cannon fodder. They want absolutely loyal foot soldiers yet offer no actual loyalty in return. They will say they love them and they will preach to them and invoke God and put football in biblical terms. They will posture and declare them ‘legends of the game’ and bring them out for the ceremonial coin toss and maybe retire their number if they were good enough. But guaranteed contracts? Guaranteed healthcare after retirement? CTE research? Scholarship fund for the children of maimed and crippled players? Actual, substantial, legally binding and tangible displays of reciprocal loyalty through collective bargaining? No way Jose. If it costs them even a dime the owner class will fight tooth and nail for it. NFL owners are the most greedy, the most arrogant brand of the ultra wealthy on earth. You really think they are going to let the players, the “help”, their employees get the best of them? Come on. And on top of that they have their whipping boy Roger Goodell to enforce it all and protect their interests. Roger Goodell is the most hated man in the NFL yet he is merely the punching bag of the owners, the red herring everyone can get mad at when it’s the owners their should be pissed at.
Guys like Luck and Gronk and Zeke and Kaepernick are bad for business, therefore they are bad for the NFL. They threaten the almighty bottom line because they provide an example to other players that you don’t need to literally kill yourself for the financial enrichment of 32 old white billionaires, or the entertainment of the unshowered masses who will boo you off the field the moment your health becomes inconvenient to them, or use you as some fucked up political voodoo doll for speaking your mind and having opinions on things unrelated to sports. Fans, coaches, owners, they don’t really care about players.
Ultimately the players themselves are irrelevant to the NFL zeitgeist. They are not the product. Football itself is the product. The players are just the fuel that feeds the machine. They could trot out 11 nameless, faceless generic players per side and as long as they are wearing the officially licensed NFL uniforms, the stadiums are crammed full of blackout drunk fans, and the masses can play their precious fantasy football, and the talking heads and Sunday countdown shows have something to talk about, the cycle will continue and the sad little people will gobble that shit up. We are all too deep in this game to give up now. We have invested too much time and money. Players have sacrificed their bodies. Football is simply too big to fail. What else are they going to do? Watch The Bachelor? Follow the MLS?