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Easier to Vilify Team Owners than Question Society’s Complicity

The entire NFL has been involved in systematic denial of the long-term effects of game-induced head traumas.

Taking advantage of the Super Bowl hype, Mother Jones magazine just released an article “Offensive Lines: How Bad Is Your NFL Team’s Owner?” following up on its earlier “Is Your Team’s Owner a Major League Asshole?” While Mother Jones’s intention to decry the increasing inequality in contemporary American society is laudable, its attempted shaming of professional team owners as “evil-doers” may be a counterproductive distraction. More importantly, in blaming individuals for society’s ills, MoJo loses an opportunity to engage in good journalism.

Both articles intend to point out the perilous political-economic stratification in the United States today and its perverse manifestation in the increasing social financing of private profit: “corporate welfare” to team owners at the cost of tax payers’ money and players’ health. Let’s see what “Offensive Lines” had to say about it, and what it neglected to mention.

Tax-payer Financing

The vast majority of NFL team stadiums are publicly financed. And, of the ones that are, most are overwhelmingly publicly financed. A couple of examples illustrate the trend. For the Buffalo Bills, New York State and Erie County ponied up $226 of the $271 million renovation costs for Ralph Wilson Stadium. In 1997, Washington State guaranteed $300 million to billionaire Paul Allen to pay for now-Super Bowl champions Seattle Seahawks’ new stadium. The referendum was controversial and came only after a threat to move to California.

Labor Standards

“Offensive Lines” correctly points out that NFL owners – both in their outside business dealings and in their treatment of team staff and players – may not employ the highest standards. In fact, Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti was sued by thousands of employees of his staffing company for avoiding payment of accrued paid leave. In 2005, the Cleveland Browns’ owner settled with the US Department of Labor to pay assistant managers back wages and damages for violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act. The list could continue, says the article.

Lastly, Mother Jones reminds us that the entire NFL has been involved in systematic denial of the long-term effects of game-induced head traumas. The League has not yet entirely owned up to all of this nor offered a long-term solution to the problem.

But did Mother Jones question why this is so? Did it is ask what rules or structures in today’s America make “assholes” successful?

The Game That Makes “Winners” of “Assholes”

Mother Jones could have asked, “What is it about local and state governments that encourages the public financing of private profit, apparently the more likely, the less a business needs help?” “What is it about federal government and federal laws that allow employer-owners to systematically violate labor standards?” It could also have asked “What is it about our health care system that makes it so material for the NFL to deny (for as long as possible) its responsibility for players’ long-term health?”

But Mother Jones chose instead to resort to name-calling and easy “populism.” Rather than discharge its journalistic duty to engage and educate, it chose instead to provoke and ultimately obfuscate. It is too easy, not to mention immature, to find “evil” and conspiracies. Apparently it can earn some quick social-media “likes” by non-readers of articles; but it will not serve its long-term mission. Mother Jones, this does not come from an NFL fan. This comes from someone who believes in your mission of justice, equality, and ecological sustainability.

Mother Jones would do well to “grow up,” because ultimately by her behavior, she’s not only being a bad sport, but she’s acting like the inconsistent mother who bemoans her boy’s junky diet even as she continues to buy him candy and potato chips. By blaming people who are playing by society’s rules (implicitly approved by many or most), Mother Jones not only divides and demonizes, but also distracts us all from deeper questions.

In short, better ask, what is it about the political-economic “Game” that makes assholes winners and encourages winners to be assholes? What is it about the rules of the political “game” and the structures of the economic “market” that encourages the behavior that Mother so deplores?

Debating genuine issues is journalism’s mission, not name-calling and inciting acrimony.