The highest-rated Super Bowl ever was last year’s game between the New England Patriots and the New York Giants in Phoenix. The Pats were attempting to become the first-ever 19-0 champions of pro football and almost 100 million people tuned it to watch, most hoping they would lose. I, a life-long Pats fan, was in the employ of a former NFL player at the time and spent most of that Super Bowl week with him in Arizona. By the time I drove us back to Santa Monica the next day, I truly understood what Dickens meant when he wrote, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
I was allowed behind the closed doors of the NFL and looking back, I wish it had never happened because I’ll never see pro football the same way again. The fact that these men are held in such high esteem that people will not only spend ridiculous amounts of money to watch them play, but will also pay through the nose just to be around them says that our societal priorities are so far out of whack that we’ve barely evolved beyond primates. And it’s long past the time when we should re-examine a culture that celebrates grown men who play children’s games for a living and ignores the obscenity of the financial scale of the enterprise.
Like a lot of kids, I grew up playing sports. But unlike a lot of kids with my demographic profile (poor, black, and raised in the inner-city), I never focused on sports as some kind of “way out.” Maybe it was the fact that I went to school in a small Boston suburb where good grades, not good 40-yard dash times, were seen as the key to getting into college. Weston, Mass. produced more than its fair share of great athletes, but sports were more about teaching important life lessons to young people about teamwork, preparation, doing your best, sportsmanship, and handling disappointment than anything else.
That’s what sports should be about, but that’s a far cry from what we see every year on Super Bowl Sunday. The week of parties leading up to game day, the hours and hours of pre-game blather, the musical performances, military fly-overs, ceremonial coin tosses, halftime shows, and endless post-game analysis all turn 60 minutes of athletic competition into a colossal waste of time and, in this economy, an unconscionable waste of money.
A big part of the problem is how we, as humans, are wired. In a study conducted at Duke University, a group of rhesus macaques were trained to regard squirts of cherry juice as currency — or “monkey money.” It turns out that they would voluntarily accept smaller amounts of juice (spend monkey money) if they could look at pictures of the dominant males, even less juice (spend more monkey money) if they could look at female genitalia, and would have to be given more juice than usual (be paid monkey money) to look at pictures of subordinate males. To me, this study helps explain why we spend $20 billion per year on porn and how the NFL has become an $8 billion per year industry. And it makes me wonder if or when we, as a society, are ever going to evolve?
Because there is something as immoral about professional sports-entertainment as a multi-billion dollar industry as there was about the Romans feeding Christians to the lions in their coliseum. Just look at the story of former Houston Oilers running back Earl Campbell. After four years of playing for a scholarship at the University of Texas, he played eight professional seasons in the NFL. Now, at the age of 53, the Hall of Famer and Heisman trophy winner has severe arthritis in both knees, suffers from chronic back pain, and can barely move around on his own. My former employer, 20 years Campbell’s junior, now suffers physical problems of his own. At a recent worker’s compensation hearing to determine if the four teams he played for should continue to provide his medical care, Campbell was asked humiliating questions like, “do you dance?” and “do you drink alcohol?” and “are there stairs in your house?” Essentially, the best lawyers money could buy tried to attribute his ailments to something he did off-the-field and not the 10 years he spent crashing into large men at top speed in an NFL uniform. That’s just wrong.
To me, the solution is simple: nationalize our professional sports leagues. When the principal product is a television broadcast utilizing public airwaves, and that broadcast would be impossible without tens of thousands of people buying tickets to see hundreds and hundreds of athletes perform “for the love of the game,” there is no good reason why the benefit should enrich only a few dozen super-wealthy families and mega-corporations. It works in Green Bay where the Packers are a “community project, intended to promote community welfare” for “exclusively charitable” purposes, and it can work everywhere a NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL team plays. If only we, as a society, would start thinking like rational human beings and stop acting like monkeys.
Kenny Mack is a multi-platform content provider living in Santa Monica who is shopping his book, “Word In Edgewise: The Collected Opinions of America’s Smartest Columnist” to forward-thinking publishers. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org