Rust as Gold Dust

Why the NFL Cherishes Bygone Cities

In a tribute to the National Football League’s nostalgia-tinged, size-doesn’t-matter, redistributive genius, Super Bowl XLV will pit the nation’s 152nd largest metropolitan area against its 22nd largest. Green Bay defeated Chicago yesterday to clinch the National Football Conference; Pittsburgh prevailed against the New York Jets in the AFC Championship.

Think about that. In what other contexts could Pittsburgh and New York – not to mention Green Bay and Chicago! – compete on a level playing field? Certainly not in baseball, America’s supposed pastime. In the unlikely scenario the Pittsburgh Pirates met the New York Yankees in a World Series, the Yankees’ payroll would exceed the Pirates’ payroll by a 6-to-1 margin ($206 million vs. $35 million), reflecting the relative size and economic prowess of their home markets.

But yesterday’s NFL championships were no David-versus-Goliath showdowns. That’s because the NFL, a club of billionaires peddling a game that glamorizes merciless hitting, practices a form of redistributive socialism that would make even European lefties blanche. All NFL teams, regardless of the size of their home markets, share national TV revenues equally and operate under the same salary caps. To further promote equality, the NFL has last-place teams draft first from the collegiate ranks, with the Super Bowl champions getting the last pick each spring.

The NFL’s socialistic revenue-sharing arrangement, which treats all franchises alike and thus helps shine an outsized spotlight on communities like Green Bay and Buffalo, is made possible by a half-century-old law that exempts sports leagues from antitrust laws when negotiating their TV contracts. The NFL, Congress decided, should be considered a “single entity” rather than a collusion of franchises and their owners, at least when making deals with TV networks.

Count me among the ranks of those long dumbfounded by the irony of professional football – American football! – practicing such socialism. But watching this weekend’s championship games made me realize – and there is plenty of ruminating going on when you hit what seems like the hundredth wireless-carrier commercial of the afternoon – that there may be something more at play here than the NFL’s obsession with parity.

The league is also in the preservation business, exploiting our collective need for shared ancestral traditions, for deeper roots. The NFL is much less concerned about whether a city like Los Angeles, the nation’s second-largest metropolitan area, ever gets back in the game than it is about how to preserve franchises in lesser cities like Buffalo, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Green Bay. These cities have declined in the real world, but, as an embodiment of certain ideals, they have never been more valuable to the NFL brand.

Football’s ethos, after all, was shaped by cold, broad-shouldered cities like Pittsburgh and Cleveland – cities that loom large in our narrative of shared origins. This isn’t only a question of geography, but also of values. In our elegiac imaginations, America’s fading industrial cities embody a back-to-basics work ethic and a determination to overcome adversity. (It’s no accident that Steeler and Packer jerseys are reliably among the top-selling NFL gear nationwide.)

That’s why fans all across Southern California routinely cram into Packer and Steeler bars, as they did again yesterday, to watch the games. Whether these California-based Steeler and Packer fans have personal links to Western Pennsylvania or Wisconsin or not, they have an aspirational link. It’s about yearning for a shared tradition and a grittier three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust version of life-not to mention single-digit temperatures in which you can see your own breath. These are spectacles best witnessed from a bar in L.A., of course, but spectacles that nonetheless link us to our past, and to one another.

Unfortunately, the NFL and its players’ union are currently in a stalemate over a new collective bargaining agreement, opening the possibility of a player lockout and strike commencing as early as this spring. This would be a serious blow not only to America’s best-run sports league, but also to the league’s city-preserving egalitarianism. That’s because some union sympathizers are now pressing Congress to further narrow or eliminate – rather than expand – the NFL’s anti-trust exemption. Such a change would bring the days of a nostalgic league that sustains the competitiveness of a place like Green Bay to a swift end. And we’d lose a lot more than a business model.

Andrés Martinez is Editorial Director of Zócalo Public Square and Director of the Bernard L. Schwartz Fellows Program at the New America Foundation.

*Photo courtesy of andy_emcee.


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