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More than a Game: Sports in the aftermath of the election

Columns | December 5, 2016

I didn’t write the column that should’ve come out two weeks ago because after the election, writing about a nonrelated football item seemed trivial, and trying to connect it to football seemed crass. While I have written a column for this week, I also want to purposefully minimize it—I don’t want to assign to it a level of importance that it doesn’t deserve at this juncture, and my viewpoint isn’t necessarily the most useful or interesting one at this point in time. It’s not fair to pretend that sports—the NFL in particular—is the only thing that’s happening in the United States and the world at any given time. But this is also worth noting: sports are tremendously important to a lot of people, myself included, and it’s fair and right that people find meaning and maybe even take solace in football, basketball, soccer, hockey, and whatever else they might enjoy.

But, to get to the point: in the days immediately after the election, significant activists and commentators (Shaun King leads a prominent effort; there is also an app created by the Democratic Coalition Against Trump) called for a boycott of companies and businesses that have publically expressed support for Donald Trump. Among them is the New England Patriots, for reasons that include owner Robert Kraft’s friendship with and support of Trump, quarterback Tom Brady’s friendship with Trump (it’s worth noting that he’s declined to support or repudiate Trump during this election, and his wife, model Gisele Bündchen, has stated that they both voted for Clinton; the DCAT app lists “Tom Brady” on its list of entities to boycott), and head coach Bill Belichick’s letter of support for Trump, revealed at a rally in New Hampshire just a few days before the election.

I have a number of feelings about this idea. On the one hand, due to the structure of NFL teams as corporate entities, it makes little sense to boycott them in order to negatively impact an owner: NFL teams share most revenue fairly broadly (albeit without strongly redistributive methods like the NBA’s luxury tax, and excepting important profit drivers like team merchandise), and the NFL’s contract between players and management assigns roughly 48% of total NFL profits and 40% of local club revenues to players. Although owners derive significantly more profit from their teams than any one player, or even all their players as a whole (especially given that players receive no share of the revenue if a team is sold), boycotting an NFL team hurts players (and even what one could consider middle management i.e. assistant coaches, medical/training staff, equipment managers, and other low-publicity but work-intensive and crucial jobs) disproportionately more than I am comfortable with, especially given that they shoulder the vast majority of the burden in creating profit for teams. It feels unfair to punish players—especially those that have publically condemned Trump and have stood up for admirable causes in the past, like tight end Martellus Bennett—for the viewpoints of a select few powerful organizational figures.

On the other hand, despite the imperfection of boycotts as a general method of inflicting economic pain on a political opponent, and the particularly flawed concept of boycotting an NFL team as a means of hurting (primarily) the owner, they remain an effective tool for the relatively powerless to afflict the powerful. They do this through both the basic economic action of denying profits to the opponent but also by loudly and publically tarnishing their reputation. The combination of economic pain and negative publicity can quickly force a  profit-motivated enterprise (which certainly describes any NFL team) to reevaluate its public political stances or the stances of prominent affiliated individuals. The owner, head coach, and most famous and important player for the Patriots have all supported Trump—who, in case you missed the memo, is absolutely vile, a spray-tanned dollar-store knockoff Milošević, but without the remotely redeeming sense of any intelligence or cleverness to his sheer malevolence—in one way or another, in explicit and tacit ways. In these circumstances, a boycott seems reasonable, perhaps even necessary.

But, of course, the personal is also political. I am unsure how to proceed in a world wherein my favorite sports team is implicated, however directly or indirectly, in the economic power and public prestige of a politician who I find to be despicable in every possible dimension. Watching the Patriots gives me life, in many ways—is it fair to prioritize that over my politics? Is it fair to claim to oppose Trump and then lend my attention to an entity that supports him? The petty justification that I could offer here is that, well, it’s hard to say whether or not the Patriots actually support Trump, so it’s fine to keep watching. However, regardless of to what extent that is a true statement, it’s also kind of a cop-out. What happens when your favorite thing, your absolute favorite thing, is problematic?

The way I’ve thought about this question is by breaking it down—asking myself how much I need Patriots football, can I afford to give it up, and how much is it hurting other people if I keep supporting it? It’s the same thing other football fans ask themselves when thinking about the inherent violence of the game, when it bubbles up off the field and manifests itself in violence against women. It’s what some fans of college football ask themselves when they think about the countless young athletes who go out and bleed on countless fields every Saturday and don’t see a penny of the profits. And of course, there are no good answers. And I don’t know if asking myself those questions and coming to the conclusion that I am too weak to turn off the broadcast on Sundays is better than never even considering them.