The National Football League, to put it lightly, is currently facing a major public relations issue following the release of footage showing Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice punching his fiancé in an elevator. Rice has been banned from the league indefinitely, but controversy ensued when his initial punishment was only a two-game suspension, stemming from the NFL’s disputed claim that they knew nothing of the footage.
Why are the American people so outraged, and why does the NFL have to respond to their demands?
Jeffrey Alexander’s book, “The Performance of Politics” makes a compelling case for the way in which American Democracy is hardwired through the civil sphere, and how politicians must construct a form of performance to be elected. These principles of political communication are immersed into our society to such a degree, that they can be applied to the NFL’s struggle toward redemption, and in helping to explain why American’s are so outraged, also support Alexander’s study of “the democratic struggle for power”.
This struggle for democratic power, according to Alexander, occurs within the civil sphere, a solidarity formed by citizens based on shared values and meanings. The struggle for the NFL to redeem itself after a considerable failure, interestingly enough, takes place within this sphere as well. The issue has generated outrage among the American public as a whole- outside the sphere of football fans or NFL viewers- due to its confliction with values we hold against abuse.
This in part, can be attributed to the role of the media in confronting corporate wrongdoers and project their interpretations- the same way they do so in contesting the power of politicians. The media has also played a large role in assimilating football into popular culture- so much so in fact, that I would argue Americans view the game as a symbol for American culture as a whole, and by extension American values. Networks and advertisers have successfully “fused the speaker and the audience” as Alexander would say, and connected football to civil society this way, an example of this being popular NFL commercials, Play60, encouraging kids playing outside for an hour each day- exercise and health being something we value as a society.
Because it is deemed as this expression of American values, we transcribe these values onto players; in the same way we transcribe civil attributes onto politicians, and that politicians seek to become symbolic of such civil qualities. Part of this process is successfully becoming what we imagine to be a hero. Alexander describes the formation of a hero in Chapter 4, as a politician’s ability to resonate with audiences, and as the ability to overcome challenges, establish urgent necessity, and to develop a second, “immortal” body. NFL players overcome physical challenges as soon as they step onto the field, in a very public and tangible way. Urgency is established inherently by a ticking game clock, and immortality by institutions such as the NFL Hall of Fame and players’ merchandise. The most difficult obstacle a player faces in becoming a public hero is resonating with the audience, and it is often when this fragile bond is broken the public usually has a much harder time forgiving the transgressions of said hero. An example of this break would be when Michael Vick was accused of engaging in dog fighting circles- an act of violence deemed unacceptable by a vast majority of the general public, and a type of strange extreme lifestyle almost all Americans cannot understand or justify. Vick has arguably still not been forgiven, by football fans and non-viewers alike.
When a player does successfully connect with members of civil society as a hero though, even though Americans feel as though they have the right to make demands of righteousness from these heroes, it appears to be very easy for their unworthy actions to be forgiven if they have repented enough. Looking at professional sports as a whole, players such as Kobe Bryant and Rice already to some degree, have been forgiven or defended for their accused actions of rape and domestic abuse, respectively. I would argue this is due to their transformation into civil heroes through the actions above, but it can also reveal a troubling issue within the boundary of gender Alexander refers to, and a larger trend of sexism within American society.
Americans’ apparent need to hold the NFL accountable for its civil failures can also be attributed to the way in which ritual has been developed in viewership and fandom. In the same way that voting fosters a citizens imagining of themselves as belonging to a democratic polity, choosing a team and supporting them whole-heartedly gives football fans a similar sense of solidarity. The physical act of casting a vote can be compared to the physical act of buying a ticket to a game or merchandise for a particular team. It’s an extension of the fan’s beliefs, they take pride in their choice, and if they subsequently feel as though they’ve been letdown, they-the rational audience, or voter- has the right to demand that the player or commissioner be removed, as they would vote against as particular party if the candidate had done the same.
Alexander, J. (2010). The Performance of Politics. Chp. 1,3,4-6. Pg. 7-287
Belson, K. “Womens’ Views on N.F.L. Dim” New York Times: Pro Football. Web. 19 Sept 2014
Strauss, B. “Comments by Brandon Marshal… Reflect Complexity of Abuse Issue” New York Times: Pro Football. Web. 18 Sept 2014