NFL, America’s Soapbox

By | Updated Feb 5, 2016 7:43 PM UTC

Talking football in the U.S. now means talking domestic violencechild abusebullyingbrain injuriesbrutalityracegay rights, gender inequality and good old fair play. Much against its wishes, the National Football League has become America’s great social sounding board. The NFL, which will turn 100 in 2020, is an estimated $12 billion business whose games are the most-watched U.S. television programs. Its success in knitting itself into the fabric of American life has also made it a powerful platform for scrutinizing societal ills. The league has long seemed impervious to criticism. After a series of embarrassments, it said it had erred and strengthened its policy on players’ personal conduct. But in several of its most high-profile cases it saw tough penalties overturned by judges critical of the league’s procedures.

The Situation

The week before Super Bowl 50, the NFL ordered teams to interview female candidates for all vacant executive positions. Earlier in the season, the league hired its first female official and the Buffalo Bills hired the first full-time female assistant coach. In December, the movie “Concussion” portrayed the league as a corporate villain so big it “owns a day of the week.”  The league in April 2015 reached what could be a $1 billion settlement in a lawsuit by 5,000 former players over neurological damage. Also that month, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said the league would give up its tax-exempt status, which generated more criticism than savings. In 2014, in the opening weeks of the season the league and its teams suspended four players accused of beating their wives or children. Though the issue wasn’t new — more than 65 players have been arrested for domestic violence since Goodell took over in 2006 — the level of attention was. The 2014 season’s conclusion brought cheating allegations against superstar quarterback Tom Brady of the New England Patriots, the Super Bowl champs. Player sexuality was an off-season topic as Michael Sam became the first openly gay NFL player. The 2013 season’s theme was bullying, after a Miami Dolphins lineman left the club, saying he was harassed by teammates. In 2012, the issue of NFL brutality was in focus when the league said that the New Orleans Saints ran a bounty program, paying players for injuring opponents.

Sources: U-T San Diego NFL Arrests Database; USA Today NFL Player Arrests Database

The Background

The sporting world has long been a venue for addressing social issues (see Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier). The National Basketball Association took swift action on the issue of racism in April 2014 by banning Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life after he was recorded telling a girlfriend not to bring black people to games. The NFL, however, makes more than twice the money the NBA does. Money is the great influencer of sports league behavior, and the biggest threat to the NFL’s 32 team owners is pressure from corporate sponsors such as Anheuser-Busch. Threats to suspend endorsements drove Sterling out of the NBA and criticism from the NFL’s commercial partners raised the volume of questions about the tenure of Goodell, whose 2013 salary was $35 million. But the NFL team owners called Goodell the “right person to lead the league” in January 2015 after investigating his handling of the case of running back Ray Rice, who was banished by the Baltimore Ravens, but only after video surfaced showing him knocking out his fiancee in a New Jersey casino elevator. (He later won an appeal of a league-wide ban but was not signed by any team.)

The Argument

Advocacy groups have successfully drawn attention to their causes by turning NFL transgressions into national discussions. The league has bowed to public and sponsor pressure to act. Former Major League Baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent says playing the role of judge is painful for his peers, requiring them to balance commercial and ethical judgments against public opinion and market pressure. Says Vincent: “When does a sport say this doesn’t have much to do with us?”

The Reference Shelf

  • A Bloomberg News article details the NFL’s handling of Ray Rice’s domestic-violence arrest.
  • The news organizations USA Today and U-T San Diego maintain databases cataloguing arrests of NFL players since 2000.
  • Bloomberg Businessweek published an article in September about the influence of corporate sponsors on sports leagues.
  • Nielsen statistics show the NFL’s television viewership dominance.
  • The NFL’s collective bargaining agreement with its players.


First published Sept. 24, 2014

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:
Jonathan Landman at