A critical look at the National Football League

where the owners insist on being called 'Mister'

By Nigel Aplin
Sports Editor

01 August 2016 — Could the National Football League (NFL) be both the most popular and the most hated North American professional sports league? While it currently occupies a pre-eminent place in American sports culture, there has always been plenty to dislike about the NFL, its management, team owners, the way it conducts its business, the way it treats its current and former players, its fans, and the cities where its teams are located.

The NFL is the only one of the four major North American sports leagues which presents its championship trophy to the team’s owner. The National Hockey League Commissioner has always presented the Stanley Cup to the captain of the winning team who then either hoists the cup above his head or, in some cases, defers that honour to a veteran player who may be winning the cup for the first time. In baseball and in basketball, the championship trophies are presented to the team’s coaches, managers or star players in various combinations. Not the NFL. The Superbowl post-game ceremonies begin with the NFL Commissioner presenting the Vince Lombardi trophy to the owner of the winning team who then eventually shares his prize with his team’s head coach, general manager and, finally, with the players.

NFL rules require that each team be owned by an individual (or at least majority-owned). No corporations, syndicates or community groups need apply for ownership of an NFL team (with one grandfathered exception, the Green Bay Packers, which is owned by a group of Wisconsin based shareholders). These wealthy white American men form one of the most exclusive and influential clubs in the United States. The league has created and perpetuates a reverence for these men to the point that all of the league’s players, coaches, management, broadcasters and staff always refer to each of them as “Mister”. The team I support, the Buffalo Bills, is owned by Terry Pegula, a Pennsylvania native and Florida resident who made his fortune by acquiring and then recently selling oil fracking rights to large swaths of land in the eastern United States. Mr. Pegula acquired the team in 2015, after the passing of its founding owner, Ralph Wilson, after approval from the other team owners, called the NFL Board of Governors.

The NFL’s Commissioner is a man named Roger Goodell. His annual salary is reported to be in the range of $43 million. Mr. Goodell has found his name in the non-sports news frequently in the last couple of years – and not for reasons he would have wanted. After years of denial, the league has been under intense pressure to admit that many of its former players who suffered concussions over their playing careers are now permanently disabled by CTE, the degenerative brain disease which is linked to multiple brain traumas. The NFL settled a lawsuit last year brought by a large group former players on this issue for just under $1 billion but, for many years, it denied any connection between football and CTE and it has reluctantly and slowly back-tracked its position only in the face of irrefutable evidence. Recent incidents of domestic battery, some of which were caught on surveillance video, on the part of NFL players were initially adjudicated by Mr. Goodell with “slap-on-the-wrist” disciplinary sanctions before public outcry forced him to stiffen those sanctions.

Mr. Goodell’s role includes leading the NFL’s effort to extort public funds for new stadiums - something he did recently in Buffalo where the Bills play in a bare-bones (although recently renovated) stadium which opened in 1973. The underlying and unspoken threat is that unless a new stadium is built, the team will be relocated to a city which is willing to fork over tax dollars in order to land one. And the threat is real. The NFL has moved its teams much more often than any of the other three sports leagues and has not suffered any loss of revenue or popularity, except of course among the jilted fans in cities which lose their teams because their local governments refuse to provide public funds to keep them.

Local politicians, believe it or not, find these choices difficult as it leaves them torn between honouring the desires of the sensible constituency who would much rather see public funds allocated to actual public works, and playing to the NFL fans in their communities who would never forgive them for overseeing the departure of their team to another American city. The people of the city of Buffalo, NY, for example, feel a very deep connection with the Bills — rightly or wrongly — and, until last year when Mr. Pegula acquired the team, they lived for several years in fear of losing their team once their 90+ year old owner died. When Mr. Pegula purchased the team last year from Mr. Wilson’s estate for $1.2 billion, he did promise to keep the team in Buffalo but the local government of Erie County (which owns the stadium where the Bills play) also undertook and has completed a multi-million dollar renovation and upgrade of the aging facility in order to sweeten the deal. The Bills remain in Buffalo for now but Mr. Goodell has already indicated that the league wants a new facility built which can drive more revenue than the current one does. 

The Superbowl played in February of this year was the 50th one and the league used the anniversary to honour some of its great players who were members of earlier Superbowl winning teams. As the former players, some now in their 70s, were introduced, each walked out on to the field individually to great applause from the crowd in San Francisco’s spanking new Levi’s Stadium. I was struck by how these men hobbled out to take their places on bad knees and hips, many looking far older than they should have. The group would have been bigger except that some former star players have taken their own lives in recent years and were obviously not there. Many of these men died from suicide using methods which left their brains intact (such as self-inflicted gunshots to the chest) and some left notes requesting that their brains be studied for evidence of CTE. Medical examinations later established that all who took this approach had CTE. Football is truly a brutally physical game and this is not the fault of the NFL but the league would far prefer to leave the dead and hobbled players behind than offer much help to them. It could be bad for business. The NFL only addresses these issues under intense public pressure or pursuant to judicial rulings.

Why, then, do I and millions of other sports fans in North America and, increasingly, around the world, love the NFL? I promise to share the reasons in a future column.  NFL training camps are now in full swing and the 2016 season begins after Labour Day. I can’t wait.

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