Only A Game?: Nothing But Net

In this column, Jamie Moore addresses the real-world issues implicit in the National Football League. Read his previous thoughts here.

As much as I’ve written in this column about the NFL and football itself, I haven’t addressed the interplay between the league and media very much. To some extent that’s because my thoughts on the media aren’t very specific to sports, but it’s also because I’m simply not a media expert. While I feel that my personal experiences with football qualify me to address certain aspects of the game, when it comes to some media issues, I’m a little out of my element. What Tufts’ recent sports media panel showed me, though, was just how important the media and the public have become as checks on a league lacking regulatory forces.

The event, held in mid-October, was called “Nothing but Net,” and featured Dan Barbarisi (A’01), the Wall Street Journal’s New York Yankees beat reporter; Tony Massarotti (A’89), co-host of “Felger and Mazz” on local talk radio station 98.5 The Sports Hub; Shira Springer, investigative and enterprise sports reporter for The Boston Globe; and Chris Stone (A’92), managing editor for Sports Illustrated. At the panel, the four experts discussed issues at the intersection between sports and the media, including the Ray Rice/domestic abuse scandal; the way the sports media is changing; and the future of the NFL, LGBT athletes, and athlete labor unions.

Regarding the Ray Rice scandal, many of the panelists disagreed with my optimistic forecast for the future of the NFL and its ability to change its athletes’ patterns of violence and domestic abuse. While Stone called it “a tipping point” for discussing domestic violence in public, Springer was less sanguine about consequent reform, saying, “there’s a lot of uproar, and sometimes it’s for weeks, sometimes it’s for months, but we never actually see change by the league.” She also noted that the NFL has pushed off implementing many reforms until after the Super Bowl, a time gap that is “too long for [her] to take seriously.”

The other two panelists also didn’t believe the league would implement significant change. Barbarisi noted the role of scapegoats, saying, “I don’t see them doing things to be preventative, other than hacking at the people who will be at the center of the media maelstrom.” Massarotti, meanwhile, was the most cynical of the four, noting that he “[doesn’t] think people are talking about it any more.” He pointed out a key contradiction in how we view football players and what we demand of them behaviorally when he asked, “Do you expect them to be model citizens, or do you expect them to be gladiators?”

Massarotti qualified his statement by pointing out that there are plenty of football players and other athletes who behave respectfully, and that there is a large gap between being controlled violence on the field and personal violence in private life. However, that doesn’t remove the significance of his original observation: the demands of football and of the football-consuming public do have an impact on players.

In any structured system, there will emerge optimal patterns of behavior for the actors within it. In football, playing violently is the oldest one—to the point that it’s inherent to the game. I’ve discussed this before, but it bears repeating: football cannot exist without violence. This violence shapes football players and likely attracts prospective players who are predisposed to violence in all areas of their life. Don’t get me wrong: this does not and can never excuse off-the-field violence, but given the league’s inaction in this area, we shouldn’t act surprised when this terrible problem keeps coming up.

One of the most resonant and frank discussions came on the tail end of comments about Ray Rice when the panelists quickly summed up their thoughts on the future of the NFL. While Springer astutely noted the important role of declining participation in youth football in deciding the future of the NFL, Stone examined a potential proximate cause for NFL decline: “What is going to make the public lose their loyalty to the NFL? I think it’s when someone dies on the field. And notice I say when…”

Despite the skepticism towards the NFL’s willingness to reform itself, each of the panelists emphasized that reform is possible, but only if the media continues to act as a watchdog. Stone in particular praised alternative media outlets like TMZ and Deadspin for breaking major stories that traditional outlets have avoided or missed altogether, saying, “TMZ plays by different rules… and it worked here. They got the story out there in the most viscerally powerful way, and it created this big, important discussion.”

Other panelists touted the power of social media. Massarotti, who had previously criticized the Ravens’ owners for their role in the Ray Rice scandal’s aftermath, noted that social media’s growing involvement in breaking and promoting stories has meant that there is “a greater level of scrutiny on ownership and management than ever before” in sports. Springer concurred, saying that social media is “good for bringing attention to stories that would otherwise be marginalized.”

They’re right, of course: social media is the most powerful way for football consumers to influence the league besides abandoning it entirely (which doesn’t seem like it’ll happen any time soon). Social media outrage over Ray Rice’s initial suspension motivated established national media outlets to invest time and money into further investigating and discussing the incident, the NFL’s response, and domestic violence in general. Everything that came after—the subsequent video release, Rice’s release, and even this column—came because people used social media to speak out. Through these tools, football fans have become a part of the game.

Header photo by Gracie McKenzie.

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