Why the NFL Is (Somehow) America’s Most Resilient Institution

A huge portion of the controversy surrounding football in recent years has involved the league’s racial justice protests, pioneered by now-former quarterback Colin Kaepernick in the fall of 2016. The consequences of Kaepernick’s decision to take a knee during the National Anthem perfectly foreshadowed the culture -war battles that would become one of the defining legacies of this era of American life. Kaepernick’s gesture and the outrage it inspired in conservatives — stoked to an unusually personal extent by former President Donald Trump — polarized both him and the league, leading to an awkward 2017 walk out stunt by then-Vice President Mike Pence at an Indianapolis Colts game.

Kaepernick’s ongoing activism, and the extent to which the league had or had not “gone woke,” became reliable fodder for Fox News segments and conservative talk radio, and was renewed with a passion after the June 2020 protests led to a mega-million-dollar campaign from the league with the stated goal of “end[ing] racism,” a slogan which was stamped prominently on the league’s helmets and end zones.

Critics described those efforts as empty window dressing, a branding exercise with no real impact apart from the appeasement of queasy corporate partners. Conservatives warned that the league would drive away wary white viewers with its embrace of the racial justice protests, while liberal critics cautioned that Black fans would be able to tell the difference between superficial and meaningful change. Like with so many other things in business or politics, the motivation for the NFL’s rebrand is less revealing, or meaningful, than the results: The disconnect between culture-war posturing and Americans’ revealed preferences is obvious when you examine football’s continued success.

And after the past two years of the Covid-19 pandemic, which saw a bizarre football season marked by games played in eerily empty, quiet stadiums, and rosters ravaged by the virus, it’s perhaps understandable that people are willing to overlook their political queasiness in exchange for a return to normality. (The league hasn’t been spared the all-encompassing cultural debates around the pandemic, either, as exemplified by Rodgers’ cat-and-mouse game over his vaccination status and criticism from public health officials over its testing strategy.) But without the pandemic, there’s a function that football serves in American society that keeps it at the center of our pop culture where so many other spectacles have been hopelessly politicized. Put simply: Pro football is the only thing that’s still big enough to make us feel small.

That might sound like a bit of locker-room sophistry, but consider: The defining media trend of the 21st century has been the atomization of our interests, with an exponentially growing cloud of news and entertainment content enabling each individual to curate their own cultural reality . No Casey Kasem countdown, just a personalized Spotify algorithm. No Cronkite, just Tucker and Maddow. No “Must See TV,” just “Succession” viewers or “Yellowstone” viewers. For a variety of reasons, the NFL has not just weathered this, but transcended it. Football now occupies the cultural space in which misty-eyed writers once placed baseball, as a great American unifier — all the more impressive considering the cultural and technological sea changes that would now seemingly preclude such a thing from existing.

There are a slew of potential explanations for this, ranging from predictably cynical to genuinely benevolent: the extensive network of corporate partnerships that give the NFL its Big Brother-like media omnipresence; efforts to expand the sport’s reach through everything from youth sports initiatives to the legalization and promotion of sports gambling; the changes to the sport’s rules that have made the game safer and more entertaining, warding off the numerous concussion scandals that many thought would endanger the sport’s mere existence at any level.

Those are all probably necessary for football to maintain its improbably big-time footprint, but none are sufficient. Football is the last monoculture standing because it’s created its own, self-contained constellation of the micro-universes that have replaced that monoculture. You might be a Detroit Lions fan, or a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, or someone who really just cares about fantasy football, or an inveterate gambler, or you might only care about the game because it reminds you of time spent with your grandparents, or because you think Tom Brady is handsome, or because you love him madden video game series, or because you played in high school and could have been recruited if not for that knee injury, or simply because it’s a convenient excuse to drink beer with the same 12 people at your favorite bar each Sunday, but you’re participating in one big grand tradition.

The reason why doesn’t matter to the NFL and its franchise owners, who become ever-more opulently wealthy each year in any case. But it matters to you. Not you as a political actor or an enlightened consumer, but you as someone whose identity is ultimately rooted in their community, tastes and cultural preferences. And that is why racial justice protests, or pandemic debates, or any other culture-war conflict can’t break the NFL: It’s big enough to reflect and reproduce our social and political problems, but rooted so strongly in small-scale cultural identity that it’s nearly impossible to give up at the individual level.

Savvy politicians have always understood this and made their appeals to voters — built a personal trust with them — by inspiring that kind of cultural affinity. Even in an arena where the stakes are obviously higher and the individual tensions far sharper, the most popular American leaders in recent memory — Obama, Clinton, Reagan — have been the ones who successfully pitched the biggest tents. That seems almost impossible in our fractured and tetchy political era. But the NFL’s continued success offers a strategy by which to do so, for anyone willing to try it: To make it truly big by allowing for as much smallness as possible.

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