The concept of a small collection of white (overwhelmingly male) elites controlling significantly larger and more diverse group, seemingly contradict today’s socioeconomic progress. However, the National Football League clings to a more outdated model, with 1600 players of color (over 70%) under the management of 32 owners — 29 of whom are white.
This unchecked and demographically disproportionate dominance allows for systematic oppression of its players that is promoted across the spectrum, from owners to fans.
First, NFL players are held to exceedingly stricter standards than their owners. For example, when black athletes like Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem in protest of police brutality, voices cried out against the morality of the players’ actions; President Donald Trump called the players “sons of bitches,” and multiple NFL owners instituted policies that would punish their players for kneeling.
However, when owners exhibit objectively immoral behavior, little to no effort is made to hold them accountable. Washington Football Team owner Dan Snyder sold exclusive commemorative 9/11 hats in 2006 in the team store and did not spare even one cent on the tribute-wear for any type of charity. More recently, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft was charged with soliciting prostitution and has faced no repercussions from the same voices that protested the “immoral” kneeling of the NFL players that “disrespected the flag.” These instances outline a double standard in the NFL, in which owners are never held accountable yet players face draconian restrictions daily.
The oppressive dynamic of the NFL also reveals itself through the sheer physical and mental strain that the players endure. The NFL has long demonstrated an indifference for the health of its players, spending covering up the significant and tangible effects of CTE on its players. Blinded by financial gain and the on-field spectacle of the game, both NFL management and fans are quick to disregard the humanity of the players, focusing instead on the success of their real-life or fantasy teams.
This past season, stars such as Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell displayed how both ownership and fans alike promote treating players as inaudible property rather than human employees. The two became vocally disgruntled with the management and treatment from their team’s front offices regarding their below-market compensation and coaching, leading to the players to demand the opportunity to seek employment elsewhere.
Owners and fans continue to adhere to the stereotype that disgruntled NFL players are selfish and apathetic. Countless NFL fans were quick to take shots at both players’ character, work ethic, loyalty, love of football, and sense of entitlement. The true story is one of the men pursuing a more equitable opportunity to secure their families and strive for greater personal career success.
Lower-tier players such as rookies and free agents experience great abuse from the league, as their preseason contracts often have no guaranteed salary. When one of these players starts exhibiting symptoms of an injury – which could range from concussions to broken bones – they’re often forced to play through the injury, jeopardizing their long-term health. Telling the team about the injury means potentially being cut from the team and replaced with the next free agent. This status quo is accepted across the league, further displaying the disregard for and borderline abuse of players’ health and well-being.
At its core, the NFL exacerbates a culture in which predominantly wealthy, white elites profit from the on-field performance of a much larger body, primarily composed of people of color. Furthermore, these players risk their own physical and mental health while the rest of the world places a monetary value on their performance, exerting a sense of financial ownership over the athletes. Thus, when players want a say in their own monetary value, the sports world scoffs.
Former NFL athletes, such as Trevor Price, have spoken out against this abusive dynamic, saying “You can fold [players] up and throw them around like a paper airplane […] That’s about as much as they’re worth. Some of that has found its way into the us-versus-them mentality of players and owners.”
To fix the inequality and irreverent culture that NFL players face, there should be a system where NFL players are given some say in the team’s ethical policies and social responsibilities. Due to the diverse backgrounds that an NFL locker room houses, player input could greatly help mend the racial and socioeconomic divides across the league and its fanbase.
Due to an elitist culture and a lack of accountability, NFL owners and their loyal fanbases perpetuate a “plantation” dynamic that disregards the humanity and wellbeing of minority players. However, given the overbearing power of the owners, it is up to the NFL’s upper management to come together with the players to update the model of equality and shared respect across the league, or it will continue to serve as a troubling modern tribute to America’s institutional inequality.