Roger Goodell and the Politicization of Sport

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By Seamus Murrock

How has social media reacted since our relocation announcement?” asked the official Oakland Raiders Twitter account, just days after announcing the team would move to Las Vegas, linking the tweet to an article from their website. While many of the replies to the tweet are focused on vitriolic aphorisms concerning the N.F.L.’s dubious greed, or the utter lack of awareness from the Raiders’ social media team, or even just textless .gifs of head coach Jack del Rio shaking his head, the cherry-picked observations posted to the official website read more like state-sponsored propaganda.

A hopeful note from quarterback Derek Carr, whose $3.1 million guaranteed paycheck will clear regardless of which state his team plays in, seemingly did little to ease the nerves of the team’s impatient fan base. Not even the optimistic adage “wherever you go, I’ll follow you so” from model and fan Josephine Skriver could excite Raider Nation for a move to a city whose primary societal outputs are gambling, alcoholism, and offhand replicas of monuments decidedly unaffiliated with the city itself.

The Raiders, owned by Mark Davis (whose father, Al, was once the head coach and owner of the team) are the third franchise to relocate cities in the past four years, alongside the Los Angeles Chargers (formerly of San Diego) and the Los Angeles Rams (formerly of St. Louis). This movement comes despite Commissioner Roger Goodell’s insistence that “they’re painful for the NFL” and “we always work to avoid that.” By choosing to make franchise relocation a central aspect of his tenure, Goodell ensures that his legacy as commissioner will be defined and continually refined by the heartbroken fans of teams he’s plucked away for largely financial reasons.

In today’s N.F.L., stadiums and their various leasing contracts are essentially viewed as financial vehicles to ensure maximum profits for other owners around the league who have positioned themselves to capitalize on relative franchise valuations. Teams with outdated or run-down stadiums, such as the Buffalo Bills in upstate New York or the Tennessee Titans in Nashville, begin each offseason with a target on their back from the league office. Constructing a new stadium, or even the possibility of doing so, can immediately boost a team’s valuation more than any star players or wins ever have. The Rams watched their value jump 100% on a year-to-year basis after announcing relocation plans, according to Forbes. Essentially, if building a state-of-the-art facility for Team A increases their perceived worth, then Team B begins to look a lot more valuable, as well as Teams C and D and so forth. Cities who are unwilling to shell out hundreds of millions of dollars in public funding to build a shiny new stadium for the league, like San Diego, put themselves at risk of losing the team altogether. St. Louis, who was unwilling to foot part of the $1 billion bill owner Stan Kroenke laid in front of them for a new stadium, was forced to watch their team cross the country and settle in Los Angeles, California last season.

Las Vegas, who now gets to enjoy the thriving economic repercussions that arrive precisely eight out of 365 days per year, took the N.F.L.’s preferred stance of selling out its taxpayers for personal enrichment, and offered an unprecedented $750 million worth of public funds to go towards to a football stadium. This comes just a year after county officials voted to increase public school class sizes, and even close an entire school for at-risk youth, due to lack of municipal funding. With this move, Las Vegas further proved its loyalty to the league by flagrantly displaying another key N.F.L. principle, lack of shame.

Goodell, whose popularity amongst fans can be best characterized by the annual public shaming session he endures at each April’s N.F.L. Draft, justifies his shakedowns of the fans that line his pockets by citing the economic benefits they receive from having a team in their city. These benefits have been thoroughly disputed by economists for decades, yet the league continues to peddle their misinformation in order to further grow a $14 billion company that didn’t pay taxes until 2015. Harvard University professor Judith Grant Long wrote in her 2012 book “Public/Private Partnership for Major League Sports Facilities” that “most economic analyses demonstrate that sports facilities produce very few or no new net economic benefits.” She then adds that this is “The consensus among economists – and it really hasn’t changed over 20 years.”

Unlike the National Basketball Association or Major League Baseball, whose respective teams play at least 41 and 82 home games each year and bring thousands of fans into the city at a time, N.F.L. teams appear in front of their fans a mere eight times each season. This relative scarcity makes it harder to justify paying top dollar to keep a team in your city, especially in places like Oakland, where the heartbreak of losing the Raiders can be routinely mended by a Steph Curry 3-pointer. Additionally, stadiums owned by N.B.A. and, especially, M.L.B. teams, tend to last longer without a profit-hungry commissioner looming in the background. The M.L.B.’s Boston Red Sox have played in Fenway Park since 1912, while the N.B.A.’s New York Knicks have played in Madison Square Garden since 1968.

The controversy surrounding relocation of franchises is yet another stain on the modern N.F.L.’s reputation. The league was silent for years on the pressing issue of player safety as it pertains to concussions, eventually reaching a $1 billion settlement with former players suing for medical compensation. As a result of the ensuing media backlash, the league begrudgingly adopted new concussion protocol for afflicted players beginning in 2016. League-wide viewership was down 9 percent during the regular season and 6 percent during the playoffs, which many see as a collective societal grade given to the current state of the league.

Still, many fans around the country will continue to dutifully support their hometown team, even at an increasingly contentious social cost. When the Raiders take the field in Las Vegas for the first time in 2019, many officials back in Oakland, including Mayor Libby Schaaf, may indeed find solace in the fact that they’re saving taxpayer dollars and refusing to perpetuate the league’s crooked incentive system. But for the fans, it will be just another letdown in a series of mistakes by one of the country’s most beloved leagues.

 

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