Ohioans have dueling misery on either side of the state: In Cleveland, the Browns serve as unapologetic harbingers of misery each year. In Cincinnati, the Bengals drag fans slowly through a bright and promising season before dashing dreams during the playoffs. As an NFL fan and loyal Ohioan, I am familiar with both extremes of resilience and disappointment. Despite this, being a football fan has always been a major part of my upbringing and identity.
But to be a fan of today’s NFL is to test one’s sense of humanity. The NFL is, at its most unapologetic, a game of Russian roulette for willing bodies–mostly black bodies–one that few players survive healthy and whole.
When a player runs full-speed into another on the field, we wait anxiously for the man down to get back up. Some of us pray. When he eventually rises, or is carried off the field, we applaud. We hope for a happy ending to distract us from the brutality.
Outside of the lines, while following a team’s triumphs and defeats, many of us are regularly forced to decide what behavior we can stomach, and for how long, in the pursuit of entertainment. Whether it’s the NFL’s uneven rule enforcement for player conduct, its simultaneous pandering to women and casual approach to players’ abuse of girlfriends and wives, or, of course, the violence that we watch its players inflict on each other every week, fans must make countless excuses for their love of the game.
When an NFL player, active or retired, turns that violence on himself, there’s inevitably a conversation about his brain, the literal impact of the game on his mental health. The suicides of Dave Duerson and Junior Seau, players who shot themselves in the chest so that their brains could be examined, and that of Jovan Belcher, who murdered his girlfriend before killing himself, all prompted marginally productive discussions. The concern for the NFL player as a human comes, most often, after the life is already lost.
When the game’s violence spills over into the player’s personal lives, the most frequent victims are often family members, often women. In October, the NFL blankets its stadiums and players in pink accessories, in an attempt to show an interest in the health of women. A small gesture, really. One that looks good from afar and doesn’t cost nearly as much work as investing in the emotional and mental health of players. Showing up for women like Janay Palmer, who Ray Rice knocked unconscious in an elevator in 2014 before the NFL stumbled through processing and eventually suspending Rice, but not before playing Rice as a victim at the hands of Palmer. Much like the players themselves, the families that are subjected to this off-field harm are also overwhelmingly black, making the connection between the machine and how difficult it is for the mind to separate itself from the machine almost undeniable.
Two types of violence – one profitable, one tragic – define the NFL’s legacy. The former highlights the action and excitement of the game, while the latter lays bare the eventual toll that action can take. And it is increasingly hard not to notice that black bodies are the most common victim of both of the game’s two types of violence.
The NFL has no black owners. The NFL has never had a black owner.
However, Black players make up the majority of the rosters of gladiators that face those two types of violence. In 2014, at the time of the last NFL player census, almost 70% of players were black. Of the 32 coaches in the NFL, five of them are black (this, often praised by the league). The football decisionmakers and profiteers, protected and shielded from violence and implication to an almost absurd degree, are overwhelmingly not black. They are enabled by the central American ethos: that when a black body is in motion, there is often a profit to be made from it. Given the power structure, the people most impacted by violence receive the fewest benefits from it. This is reminiscent of other black and white power structures. But this context isn’t at the front of our minds on Sundays in the fall – not even when one of the NFL’s workers sacrifices their body over 60 minutes for a city, for an owner, or for the survival of their family.
This disparity between those who experience violence and those who profit from it becomes more jarring when we understand what is asked of black athletes in America from the time they show interest in a sport. In places like the ones I’m from, the urgency surrounding black excellence in athletics is often born less out of joy, and more out of a need to escape, and the pressure that breeds. When a black player finally “makes it,” we are so often given the story of that player’s upbringing. Shown the buildings in a neighborhood that perhaps looks like one we survived. Shown the mother who raised the player, a black woman raising a black child in a country only concerned with what their bodies can offer.
It is easy to become a cog in a machine where no one behind the controls of it looks like you, especially if you are sold the dream of your talent in exchange for an escape, becoming more than “just” black. Even if this means that you remain a cog, putting yourself at the most risk, and standing the least to gain from it.
When the NFL is done with its black players, if they can still function comfortably at all, it doesn’t offer them many opportunities to have viable careers and ascend in rank. Yes, some go on to sit behind the commentary desk and offer insight on the game. Many of them in this position, like ESPN’s Cris Carter, are given the all-too familiar role of “keeping it real” amongst white colleagues.
Many coaches are drawn from the ranks of ex-players who have become assistant coaches. The Rooney Rule, established in 2003, assures that black coaches will be interviewed for head coaching positions, but does not assure that they will be hired, as evidenced by the dearth of black head coaches and the abundance of talented black assistant and associate coaches working in the NFL right now.
In 2011, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell released statistics showing that the average NFL player’s career is six years. The average NFL salary, as of 2014, is $1.9 million per year. A healthy amount, without question, but less than the average of the NBA, MLB, and NHL. 70% of the NFL’s players are in their first contract, which means that they are, most likely, earning less far than the league’s average, and in some cases, will be out of the league entirely before they can cash in on a second contract that would be potentially larger. There is a pervasive – and dismissive – idea that putting players well-being on the line is acceptable because they are paid extremely well. But, in the face of these numbers, that notion loses veracity— especially when compared to the money made by the NFL, its coaches, and its owners, largely off of the backs of young players who are often discarded the moment they can no longer run and hit as effectively as the next man up.
A person deciding to commit their life to throwing their body into other people for sport and a person deciding to commit their life to crime-for-profit are often born from the same type of desperation. I say this with the understanding that not every one of the 1,155 black players in the NFL come from the same background. Still, I say this with the understanding that they are black. This means that they operate under a different set of societal standards that have been in place for them long before they decided to take on football as a profession. It means that, regardless of where they come from, the narrative of acceptable black success is still dependent on what you are willing to give of yourself for the sake of this country’s joy, no matter the cost. It means that they will still be called thugs if they speak too much (Richard Sherman) or if they don’t speak enough (Marshawn Lynch,) that no one will advocate for them when this happens. Not the owners who covet them, not the commissioner who uses them as pawns, not the fans who wear their names on jerseys.
In America, what is known of the black body is that when at rest, it is disposable. Easily moved on from, easily forgotten.. In Washington, quarterback Robert Griffin III injures his knee. Within two years, he goes from a city’s savior to a complete outsider. Both not black enough for black fans to advocate for, but too black to be seen as a leader by white coaches. With another NFL season approaching, I think of Griffin the most. I think of what it is to be one hit away from a country no longer seeing you as black and extraordinary.
In some ways, I imagine the greatest toll that the NFL takes on many of its black players when it’s done with them is a re-entry into a world where they are merely black men again: no longer given the treatment that black men often get when they are entertaining, working for the pleasure of others, doing what has been expected of the black body since it arrived. A relief, I’m sure, especially since the fortunate ones have managed their money. But also a sobering end.
The black body in rest is of no interest to anyone if it isn’t making someone money. An ex-player puts a gun to his head and pulls the trigger. An ex-drug dealer puts a gun to his head and pulls the trigger. A player has his spine broken making a tackle. A man has his spine broken in the back of a police van. A country, at large, shakes its head when the body doesn’t rise, or isn’t triumphantly carried off. A country, at large, maybe says a prayer.
I don’t know if I think the answer is not watching the NFL, even with all that we know. I am a resilient fan of the game, even with my disappointment in it. I know I will be watching the NFL this year, as certain as I know the Cincinnati Bengals are going to win a title this season. I don’t know if I think that there is just one answer. It has to be said that players understand and know the risks of the game, with more and more retiring prematurely.
Still, every answer that I can think of leads down the same road: Fans, even dispassionate observers, must take a critical eye to the NFL. There has to be a way to watch and enjoy this level of violence, and still act on concern for the lasting impacts that we see in players when the game is done with them, beyond the ones lucky enough to get jobs behind a sports desk, or selling shoes in a commercial. There has to be a demand for the NFL to equip its players for a complete life, beyond the game.
There has to be a way to turn the mirror back on the NFL, and the bodies it uses for profit, and demand for it to value the black body both in motion, and at rest. Value the whole of black humanity, while it’s still here. And perhaps, if we’re lucky, the rest of our country can do the same.
The black life should not need to be exceptional for America to find value in it. It should not have to come from rags to riches, or be present for our entertainment. The NFL, like the country that loves it, has to begin to see black life as something complete, with a beginning and an end. Not only something that appears – bright, fast, and profitable – before fading into another world again, where no one speaks its name.