What's Wrong with the NFL Is What's Wrong with America

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What's Wrong with the NFL Is What's Wrong with America

What's wrong with the National Football League? For starters, let’s just say it’s America in microcosm. (Image: Public domain / Fair Use)

Sexism. A culture of violence. Untrustworthy leadership. Runaway wealth inequality. An indifference to workers’ health. Employees who are above the law. Hush-hush financing. Multimillion-dollar tax breaks.

We’re not talking about America’s top corporations. We’re not even talking about the Christmas parties on Wall Street. We’re talking about the National Football League.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s handling of Ray Rice’s videotaped brutality has brought the NFL back into the public eye. It’s a sorry spectacle which others have addressed at length, so we’ll just repeat the cliché: It’s the cover-up, stupid.

For my personal assessment of Goodell, we can turn the mic over to Bill Simmons and UltraViolet. And as for the NFL itself, let’s just say it’s America in microcosm.

Capital In the 21st Century NFL

While the league’s finances are largely kept secret from the public, we know the following from public filings (form 990) and news reports (including a leaked copy of the NFL’s audited financials for 2010):

The NFL organization has 1,856 employees and paid $107.7 million per year in salaries last year. Goodell was paid more than $44 million. That means more than 40 percent of the organization’s entire payroll went to one individual.

Most of Goodell’s income was in the form of a “bonus” based on performance standards which, like that of many corporate CEOs, have never been publicly defined.

Roger Goodell is not a “job creator,” even by the right’s loose definition. He – like most corporate CEOs nowadays – invented nothing, made nothing, and built nothing. And the gravy train doesn’t stop at his house. Jeff Pash, the General Counsel, was paid $6,199,000. The EVP of Business Ventures got $4,180,000. The CFO made nearly $2 million. The EVPs of Operations and Human Resources made more than $1.6 million each. (Another executive, the EVP of media, was paid $26 million by an “affiliated” organization.)

All told, more than 54 percent of the organization’s entire payroll went to five individuals – the organization’s top 0.0027 percent. The remaining 43 percent or so was divided among 1,851 employees- the 99.9973 percent.

Now that’s inequality.

Government Of the Rich, By the Rich, and For the Rich

The NFL doesn’t even make a profit – at least on paper. To the IRS, it’s a “nonprofit organization.” But “nonprofit” work pays well for some. The top guy’s salary has certainly soared in recent years:

A bipartisan bill called the “PRO Sports Act,” which would have ended the nonprofit status of the NFL and similar organizations, appears to have died in committee. It’s reasonable to assume that Goodell, the son of a Senator, had something to do with that.

Executives like Goodell – or, for that matter, bank CEOs like JPMorgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon – seem to be compensated more for their ability to influence elected officials than for their business acumen. On that score, at least, he’s been a good investment. In addition to protecting its tax status, Goodell’s NFL has brokered loans, bonds and tax concessions for its franchises.


The NFL had annual gross receipts of $184.3 million in 2010 – and that doesn’t include earnings for the individual franchises which own it. It reported $788,113,036 in total assets on the tax-exemption form which is its only public disclosure. It gave exorbitant salaries to its top executives – and it paid no taxes.

Goodell’s hypocrisy and apparent dishonesty is a shameful but very CEO-like display, one for which he’s not likely to be held accountable …

…that is, unless he becomes a financial liability.

But that day may be coming. More than half of those polled by Reuters/Ipsos said that sponsors should sever their ties with the NFL over its handling of violence scandals involving Rice, Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, and other players. A number of sponsors have said they don’t want their ads running during games involving the Vikings or Rice’s former team, the Baltimore Ravens, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

They say payback is a bitch. But in today’s America, the only payback that matters is counted in cold cash. If the day comes that owners are forced to choose between Roger Goodell and their own profits, the response will be swift and sure. The commissioner’s instant gratification will turn into instant karma.

Goodell will be fine, of course, no matter what happens. That can’t be said about most Americans. We don’t even now if it can be said about most NFL employees, who are paid so little while the few are paid so much.

As for Goodell’s accomplishments, well … Under his leadership the NFL fought reports of player head injuries for years. Its security apparatus and legal teams have intervened when its players are arrested, often for violent crimes, securing special treatment which ordinary citizens don’t receive. It has fostered a culture of misogyny, brutality, and amorality in the field of sport, whose stars were once considered examples for young people to follow.

But then, the NFL isn’t an example for today’s corporatized America. It’s a reflection of it.

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