The NFL is a massively successful enterprise. It’s the most popular sports league in the country. Single arms of the league – not even the NFL as a whole – turn billion-dollar profits. The league brings in several billion annually in revenue. The average worth of a franchise is estimated at a billion dollars. The league is a juggernaut. A true American success story. An American success story that… everyone says is socialist.
Well, plenty of people do, anyway. Bill Maher did it last year. Many others agree. And last night, in poking fun at selective outrage over socialist policies among politicians and media, The Daily Show threw its hat into the “NFL as socialism” ring. And they had pretty strong supporting evidence: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. The whole segment’s worth watching, but Goodell’s comments come into play at the 3:23 mark:
So, how socialist is the NFL, anyway? We can start with one definition of socialism here:
“[A]n economic theory or system in which the means of production, distribution, and exchange are owned by the community collectively, usually through the state… characterized by production for use rather than profit, by equality of individual wealth, by the absence of competitive economic activity, and, usually, by government determination of investment, prices, and production levels.”
Obviously since the NFL isn’t, say, a country, the comparison can only go so far, but there’s something there. Collectively owned? We needed the Supreme Court to decide whether the league was more accurately defined as one gigantic business or merely 32 large ones, so there’s at least an argument to be made that it’s one big collective. Equality of individual wealth? Determination of investment? Revenue sharing, salary cap. Do these have something to do with the NFL’s seemingly-anyone-can-win parity that helps make the league so popular? No question.
But there’s also more to it. The biggest problem we had with Maher’s argument from last year wasn’t that the NFL isn’t at all socialist – hell, you just heard Goodell himself say the league has socialist qualities – but that those qualities aren’t all unique to the NFL. Major League Baseball, with which Maher contrasted the NFL, has revenue sharing, for example, as well as a luxury tax (albeit not an actual salary cap). If the NFL is socialist, then other sports leagues are, too.
The NFL is just doing it better (and perhaps also to a greater extent). Part of it is that Americans are crazy about football, giving the NFL an immediate leg up. And part of it is the league just knows how to market itself. Maybe “socialism” is a bad word and un-American sounding, but the league is hard-hitting and tough and has all those military flyovers to prove just how goddamn American it is (this is all coming from someone who thoroughly enjoys the NFL, mind you).
As The Daily Show’s segment illustrated, America has some socialism in it. As the NFL illustrates, if you use that socialism effectively, you’ll come out looking as American as the stars and stripes themselves (and also really, really rich). But worry not – if you want to use the NFL to illustrate the potential darker side of socialism, i.e. the consolidation of too much power at the top of the political pyramid and the corresponding potential for abuse of that power – well, you can do that, too.