Does the NFL Brand Stifle Dissent?

One of the best kept secrets in the NFL is the contracts that players sign. The timeframe and amount of money that will be paid out is released to the media. However, the other details of these contracts are shrouded in mystery. Most of us don’t care about the details. We just want them to perform.

Have you ever read a contract?

I guarantee that, unless you are a lawyer, you would think it is boring, tedious and hard to understand. But did you know that inside The Constitution and Bylaws of the NFL (on page 37) and the standard NFL players contract have morality clauses?

What is a morality clause?

“A contractual provision that gives one contracting party (usually a company) the unilateral right to terminate the agreement, or take punitive action against the other party (usually an individual whose endorsement or image is sought) in the event that such other party engages in reprehensible behavior or conduct that may negatively impact his or her public image and, by association, the public image of the contracting company.”
Fernando M. Pinguelo & Timothy D. Cedrone, Morals? Who Cares About Morals? An Examination of Morals Clauses in Talent Contracts and What Talent Needs to Know, 19 Seton Hall J. Sports & Ent. L. 347, 351 (2009).

Many and blue and white collar professionals don’t sign contracts with employers so it is assumed they don’t exist. If one does, the morality clauses are more akin to civil law, i.e., if you assault another employee, you are fired. Morality clauses begin to show up when one moves to executive and C-Suite positions where your performance is directly tied to the public image and profits of the company. Industries that have morality clauses tend to be intertwined with media and image: entertainment (film, music, etc), media outlets (news anchors, etc), select corporate positions, collegiate and professional sports. Political officials have moral obligations but rarely morality clauses in their contracts beyond illegal and treasonous activity. So, an elected official can swear on the Bible that they will uphold certain truths and conduct themselves a certain way. Yet, when caught doing something immoral, they can refuse to resign because they did not break the law. (Think President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky in the 1990s.)

In the words of Alanis Morissette, isn’t it ironic?!

The NFL has a market value north of $45 billion dollars. It is the world’s richest sports league. It is also the last of the mass media markets. Mass media has been fragmenting since the invention of cable TV and the digital revolution. The NFL has adapted well developing a unique internet and TV experience in partnership with TV and media networks for those who would rather stay home. They provide up-to-the-minute close-ups, replays, quick stats, commentary and analysis. The trade-off is watching the commercials.

What is the NFL Brand?

  • The NFL has always promoted a form of masculine patriotism rooted in a gladiator ethos. In the 1970s and 1980s, The Dallas Cowboys was America’s team. They had a stellar diverse line-up of aggressive players led by a white quarterback directed by a respected white coach…in the South. America’s team also looked patriotic with the star and its signature blue, white and gray colors. When Dallas won, America won. Two films, North Dallas Forty (1979) and Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders (1979), were made about America’s team.
  • The 1990s saw a shift when the NFL discovered that more women were watching football. (They always did.) They began to hire female commentators on the field and allow female reporters in the locker rooms. NFL female merchandise began to make an appearance in stores. The NFL nudged their franchises toward family fare and retooled the Superbowl to be more family friendly. (Super Bowl LI was the fifth most-watched TV broadcast in history with 111.3 million viewers. That is almost one third of the U.S.)
  • In the 2000s, scandals began to pop up with select NFL players. These issues were always there but were easily ignored and covered up in the past. The NFL began issuing a series of reforms and began to deal harshly with players if they engaged in physical/sexual assault on women and drugs. Unfortunately, some of this was lip service but the league has been forced to take these issues seriously.
  • In this decade, the NFL has been moving toward a militant patriotism. It is standard to see the American military highlighted at games beyond the Pledge of Allegiance. Veterans are always celebrated along with law enforcement. This is one of the last places where American exceptionalism is celebrated. Contrast this with America’s retreat from geopolitics under President Obama and the bitter partisan and identity politics that are threatening to divide the nation. MAGA fits neatly into this mentality. Also, the concussion issue is gaining attention even as the NFL acts ambivalent about it.

The NFL brand is about gladiators defending their turf. Hmmm, I wonder which fans feel this way? 

The Kaep Issue

Free agent QB Colin Kaepernick has decided to use his platform to bring attention to the police shootings of unarmed Black mean at the hands of white police officers. His response before games was to quietly kneel during the National Anthem to indict our nation for its silence on this issue. The backlash was swift. Every negative criticism he has received from players and fans has been that he is disrespecting the American flag. Since the flag represents freedom, it is deduced that he is disrespecting those who died under the flag in previous conflicts and wars and those who presently serve.

None of his critics actually address the issue that he is kneeling about.

The truth is, the NFL brand is being true to what it stands for. Did you notice that earlier in my commentary when I mentioned what is the NFL brand, I said nothing about the fact that 70% of NFL players are Black? The NFL has not really done much to highlight this reality beyond trading players and some community service. They will only spotlight a Black player helping the Black community if it fits with their already established political leanings. Why? Because most football fans are white men who, most likely, don’t want their politics to be challenged. They are protecting their turf. The NFL, its white club owners and many white fans seem to be sending this message: We own you even though you are a multimillionaire. So, don’t make us uncomfortable. If this is true, this is a troubling message to send to African American players whose ancestors were enslaved Africans. Seahawks Richard Sherman was more direct with what he believes the NFL is saying: “Boy, stay in your place!”

The real NFL brand issue:

  1. As one of the better free agent QBs in the NFL, Kaep is being blackballed by NFL owners who don’t like his brand.
  2. Kaep’s brand is intertwined with his politics which are considered radical.
  3. The NFL coaches and owners say they are deferring to fans on the Kaep issue even though they don’t defer to fans on any other trades or hires.
  4. Deferring to fans makes it look like a brand issue when in reality, it is a political issue.
  5. None of them want to deal with why Kaep is kneeling because it brings up the uncomfortable topics of race and racism.
  6. Owners have a right to not like Kaep’s brand but they are either being dishonest or disingenuous about it. Shannon Sharpe calls NFL owners on this.
  7. Black NFL players are in a unique position to challenge the NFL brand. Will they?

My point of bringing up the morality clause is simply to show that Kaep has not broken any league rules even though other white players have. Commissioner Goodell does not agree with him but defends his right to protest. But NFL owners and many fans are treating him like he has no right to dissent from their politics. If this is the case, these same people would not have embraced Martin Luther King, Jr. and Muhammad Ali in their prime.

I have heard people say keep politics out of football. What they are really saying is keep your politics out of football. It is clear that many fans and owners want a plantation system that reflects their politics. Is this what the NFL brand really is?

I recommend William C. Rhoden’s book, Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete, to understand the dilemma that Black athletes continually find themselves in when they contract with professional sports businesses.