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The NFL and its “views”

Locker rooms are an especially bad place to insist on a party line

Players for the Detroit Lions celebrate in the locker room on Dec. 24, 2023, in Minneapolis. Associated Press/Photo by Jeff Nguyen/Detroit Lions

The NFL and its “views”
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For the uninitiated, the National Football League is a collective of sports franchises best known for holding football games on Sunday, Monday, and Thursday, and putting those games on television. The league made news recently when one of its employees, Harrison Butker, said some things in a graduation speech that made a bunch of people angry, including that great gatekeeper of taste, social conduct, and constitutionality, Eddie Vedder, who is best known for singing and hanging off light stanchions.

Butker’s situation has no doubt been reported and think-pieced to high heaven on the digital pages of this fine publication, and all of the important points about free speech and cancel culture have no doubt already been made. The NFL, of course, is “distancing itself” from Butker, stating that “his views are not those of the NFL as an organization.” Which begged the question, for me, since when does the NFL have “views?” I mean that non-snarkily … like I’m actually curious.

It’s very old-mannish of me to suggest that one of the best things about professional football, historically, has been the way that it usually doesn’t include all of the other potentially unpleasant and divisive things about life, and when it’s working provides a venue where people can be divisive about something that doesn’t actually matter at all (their team preferences). But per the social ethic of the day, it’s not enough to just have a voting preference or opinions about the world, it’s now necessary to wear “that” uniform all the time, even during football games and Pearl Jam concerts.

The NFL now exists in this strange ideological blender where, in a perfect world, they would still probably just put football games on television. (They’re good at this!) But we don’t live in a perfect world, and the league is now expected to do big-company ideological hat-tipping every time there’s a hot-button issue created by one of its employees, or even every time there’s a “month” or a “cause” or whatever. All the while taking care not to overdo it and in doing so, offend their core audience, which consists of the kind of people who watch football (duh), who also tend be (broad brush strokes here) not the kind of people who have “activist” somewhere in their Twitter bio.

Normally, this works out OK, as the NFL reached its hat-tipping apex in 2020 and has kind of quietly dialed it back since, what with its nebulous “Inspire Change” sweatshirts and “My Cause My Cleats” which conveniently allows players to promote whatever it is they want to promote, while leaving the league to just take credit for giving them a “platform.”

NFL fans don’t want a social sermon served with their football game, in the same way that Bud Light drinkers didn’t want one with their beers.

The NFL tried really hard to leverage Michael Sam’s (remember that?) and Carl Nassib’s homosexuality, but neither player had the star power to really take it anywhere. Sam got cut in training camp, and Nassib’s greatest moment came in HBO’s “Hard Knocks” when he explained the financial concept of interest to his defensive line room. Whenever there’s a Republican to vote out of office, the league encourages fans to “get out and vote!” (subtext: for whoever is running against Trump!) which is pretty standard stuff.

As Butker’s recent jersey sales attest, the league keeps getting these semi-regular reminders that its fan base skews further to the right than they would probably like, and that NFL fans don’t want a social sermon served with their football game, in the same way that Bud Light drinkers didn’t want one with their beers. That’s not to suggest that all (or even most) NFL fans lean conservative, but I think it is to suggest that most of us want sermon-free football. I mean, I’m a Christian and even I got tired of Kurt Warner preaching at us when he was supposed to be talking about what he saw on that third-and-long in the fourth quarter. Sometimes it’s OK (and appropriate) to just talk about football, and enjoy a three-hour break from all the other stuff.

But about the NFL’s comments regarding Butker’s “views” being incompatible with their own, that feels dangerously like there’s a (ahem) “statement of faith” somewhere in the league office that players will need to one day pledge their fealty to. I would hate to see this because, as an ex-player and current coach, locker rooms are really the only places on earth where I’ve ever seen “this stuff” work. If by “this stuff” I mean lots of different people getting along and even liking each other. I’ve worked at universities for the past couple decades and the supposedly brilliant people there can never really manage to make it work.

It’s why we need sports. We need locker rooms. And we need to be able to enjoy it without a sermon.

Ted Kluck

Ted Kluck is the award-winning internationally published author of 30 books, and his journalism has appeared in ESPN the Magazine, USA Today, and many other outlets. He is screenwriter and co-producer on the upcoming feature film Silverdome and co-hosts The Happy Rant Podcast and The Kluck Podcast.  Ted won back-to-back Christianity Today Book of the Year Awards in 2007 and 2008 and was a 2008 Michigan Notable Book Award winner for his football memoir, Paper Tiger: One Athlete’s Journey to the Underbelly of Pro Football.  He currently serves as an associate professor of journalism at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., and coaches long snappers at Lane College. He and his wife Kristin have two children.

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