Sports  Money first, fans second

How the NFL let its fans down when they needed them most

I wish that this column about sports could be less cynical, could just stand back and appreciate the beauty and the transcendent emotions that a simple game can conjure. I wish. But there comes a time when, as fans, we realize that not everything is as ideal as we wish it could be. We realize that many of the players we look up to are flawed, and that many play for the money or the fame as opposed to winning one for the team. We realize that the owners care more about the bottom line than the winning percentage, and treat the players on the team without emotion, like employees, in a cold-hearted business manner. When the sheen of excitement is lifted and when the game is over, if you think too hard about it, it’s all business. Always business.

There might be no more sterling example of these difficult realizations for fans than the week leading up to the NFL’s Super Bowl. A corporate orgy descended onto this year’s host city, Indianapolis, with sponsors of the league getting maximum exposure. And, during the game, there were the oh-so-important commercials, costing 3 million US dollars for 30 seconds of time. Who is left behind in all of this? The common fan, the average person.

Consider an event that was happening right on the doorstep of the Super Bowl. The Indiana state government is passed a controversial labour bill that would severely cripple union power in the state in an attempt to encourage business development, effectively making Indiana a “Right to Work” state. Companies will now find it in their favor to hire non-union members, and unions will find it harder to collectively bargain. It’s a great law for business owners, who now can hire cheaper labor and drive up their profit margins, while the unions will lose their power and wages. In response to the bill’s movement through the State government, there have been decent-sized protests by union supporters at Super Bowl festivities. The unions, in a strategic move, have taken the protest to one of the biggest stages in the US right now, drawing the ire of some of the city government, who spent a lot of time and money preparing for the week’s events – which may usher in the best weeks of business the city has had in years.

After a contentious summer that saw the NFL and its players engaged in their own labour battle, there has been no statement by the NFL or any players about the protests. The NFL and the players, by the end of the lockout, were spouting out platitudes that they were happy to have a season “for the fans” and were sorry that “the fans” had to suffer through a protracted, ugly legal battle. In a process of reconciliation for the league, they claimed coming back was all about “the fans.” Yeah right.

Sure, it’s in the NFL’s best interest to remain apolitical and not come out on either side – and that’s exactly the problem. The NFL has become so tied up in corporate interests, from advertisements to sponsorships, that truly supporting their fans is impossible. But how many union workers in Indiana are football fans who shell out a good portion of their paychecks to go to Colts games or buy a Peyton Manning jersey? These are everyperson fans, the base of the NFL’s massive national empire, but the NFL has nothing to give them besides a product. Beyond their ability to buy the product, the fans aren’t important. This message has been made clear by the fact that the NFL has decided to show no support for their fans in this struggle in feat of angering corporate interests.

You may argue that the NFL shouldn’t step in, that they must remain neutral. Well fine, but they shouldn’t pretend that they exist for the fans, then.

The players shouldn’t get a pass, either, especially after championing the rights of the workers this summer and claiming to play every week for the adoration of the fans, all while having made no effort to show any support for these fans. They  want the fans to support them, but the relationship does not go both ways.

The NFL can sometimes even give the message that they don’t want your average person as a fan in the first place. Just look at the advertising during any NFL game, and you will see, other than the classic beer and fast food commercials, ads for luxury car companies and premium insurance. These ads are aimed at a higher wealth demographic than the union workers in Indiana.

The corporations, individually, are giving as much money as thousands of common fans can. Losing one fan is less damaging than losing a big corporate sponsor. The NFL will support the common fans as far as their money can go, but not beyond that. That’s the uncomfortable thought that preys at the back of your mind as you watch another touchdown, a beautiful pass, an impossible field goal: this isn’t an equal relationship. We are loved by the league and the players, but only to a point. We love our teams unconditionally, stick with them through thick and thin, but what do we get back?