Even though football eclipsed baseball fifty years ago as America's primary spectator sport, baseball has maintained a symbolic importance that football has never had. Historians and commentators have linked baseball's history to America's, seeing in Babe Ruth the exuberance of the Roaring Twenties, the Brooklyn Dodgers moving to LA as indicative of the Sun Belt's rise, and Jackie Robinson's struggle as a crucial moment in the civil rights movement. However, football has rarely been interpreted as representing anything much beyond the game itself.
Recent events should make us rethink that separation, since recent scandals and controversies in football are reflective of larger dysfunctions in American life. Take for instance today's bombshell in the New York Times, showing how authorities in Tallahassee have protected Florida State players to the point of obstructing justice. That fits with a general pattern of behavior by universities, who have placed their star athletes above the law. That lack of oversight was also apparent in allegations this week at a top high school football program in New Jersey, where seniors were accused of repeatedly sexually assaulting freshmen in the name of "hazing." (Not to mention how Jerry Sandusky was able to prey upon children for years at Penn State.) The willingness of educational institutions to turn a blind eye to criminal and abusive behavior by those who win football games reflects the general tendency in our society to protect "the stars," no matter how damaging their behavior. Just recall how the bankers who wrecked the economy and acted in bad faith are collecting bonuses, not jail sentences.
At a time when corporate profits are booming when living standards are stagnant, football is raking in the dough while shafting the men who sacrifice their bodies. The NCAA blocks the payment of money to the "student athletes" who make it billions of dollars. The NFL drug its feet when it came to helping former players with scrambled brains, and recently locked out its own players rather than do more to share its wealth from those who actually generate it. Roger Goodell is the kind of corporate technocrat ensconced at the top of America's major companies, with a one singular mission: generate profit above all else, even if some people suffer.
Last but not least, football's violence is part of American society's historical and insatiable lust for blood. The players smash into each other with increasing force, with predictably damaging consequences for the men on the field. Attempts to create new rules to moderate the force of the hits has brought mostly derision from the fans, who are upset about the loss of "real football." If some of the modern gladiators lose the ability to remember where they are or commit suicide as a result of brain damage, so be it. In some notable recent cases, the violence has spilled over from the field to the stands. The league has finally been called out for its lax punishment of domestic abusers like Ray Rice, but Goodell's initial slap on the wrist reflected a general tendency in American society to not take action on domestic abuse.
With all of the Sturm und Drang about football's controversies and scandals, it's important to call out those responsible for a whole of crimes, from sexual assault to labor exploitation. However, we should always keep in mind that these offenses are congruent with the corrupt, violent, and exploitative society that we all live in each and every day.