The prosperity of the modern National Football League in the U.S. is aided by white supremacy, i.e., the marginalization, commoditization and exploitation of the Black body.
It is clear that owners, affiliates, administration members, and even sports analysts and professors profit more from the game than the players themselves after the costs of time, energy and well-being are accounted for. Yet, opponents of this theory argue playing football is a choice, and if people don’t want to be taken advantage of, they shouldn’t play football. Or worse, even if Black players are being taken advantage of, it’s not that bad because they still make a lot of money. But these notions perpetuate harmful stereotypes about the intellect, responsibility and the agency of Black players. Further, these ideas fail to acknowledge the deep-seeded truth: Black players are used for their bodies to make their owners a profit at the expense of their own sanity and well-being.
The average player in the NFL is paid $2 million a year. The average owner makes between $20 million and $500 million a year. That means even on the lower end, owners make ten times on the lower quartile of their pay scale more than players on the median/average quartile do. Not to mention, the injuries sustained in football are unparalleled to any other modern day, hegemonic sport. According to the New York Times and TIME magazine, “The link between football and traumatic brain injury continues to strengthen. Now, one of the largest studies on the subject to date finds that 110 out of 111 deceased NFL players had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disorder associated with repetitive head trauma.” CTE can cause impulse control problems, aggression, depression and paranoia. As time goes on, problems with thinking and memory develop: memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment and eventually progressive dementia.
Everything these players do, from putting their (mostly colored) bodies on the line in the name of money, to contracting a disease as severe as CTE, is political. These players, mostly of color, are doing everything in their power to make a living by playing a very dangerous game. The owners reap far too many of the benefits for this to not be aided by larger power structures, like white supremacy, or owner versus player administrative dynamics. The amount of money these players produce versus how much they are paid versus how much the owners of teams are paid is absolutely astounding once one has done their due diligence with the research.
70 percent of the NFL is Black, and yet there exists a dull hum around that statistic. This is a reality few openly acknowledge. It is never a headline on ESPN, nor is it ever discussed in depth. Colin Kaepernick’s act of kneeling during the national anthem sparked nationwide controversy over the patriotism of football players, and whether they are required to stand for a country that does not stand for them. There is undoubtedly an expectation of colorblindness and respect for the American flag despite the fact white and Black counterparts of same crime are treated vastly differently by judicial system, killings of unarmed Black men is a reality, white cops shooting with impunity, etc. Participants of sports have long been encouraged to be apolitical and ignorant of social conditions, even though their bodies inherently occupy political space because of the United States’ legacy of slavery, colonialism and Jim Crow. When sportscasters try to engage in conversations about race or white supremacy, they are disciplined or fired. (See: Kaepernick, Jemele Hill). Further, these repressive consequences that result from discussing the color of the talent and/or socio-political factors that push players into football breed colorblindness.
If we don’t talk about how the best and most talented players in football tend to be Black and undercompensated compared to the white administrators, public and popular discourse will remark that disparities do not exist. This blindness (and ignorance) is profitable. Maintaining the status quo is profitable. Failing to understand or combat racism institutions is profitable. Ignorance is bliss. But this is dangerous. By continuing to be being a patron of institutions that actively marginalize and commodify the bodies of Black and Brown folk without adequate compensation, we stymie social progress. Clearly, the globalization of the modern world and the world of sport has allowed for a power structure where the people who manage the game earn much more in compensation (monetary or otherwise) than those who play it.
Undergirding this love is a pernicious and insidious power structure that keeps the players from receiving compensation tantamount to the risk, injuries and political capital they would sustain if never used by the NFL and NCAA as chess pieces in a game to uphold class and racial struggle.