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Sunday is finally here, and people all around the country are gearing up to watch football. These passionate fans cheer for and against one of thirty two football teams that make of the NFL, or National Football League. This group is comprised of various components including the players who compete for an audience, the coaches who regulate their every move, the referees who make the final calls, and the elite people who own the teams. All of these groups act as mechanisms operating the machine that is the NFL. This business is filled with pride, excitement, and competition, but there are many problems that surround the sport. Hiding in the shadows of the stadium lights and tv screens exists conflict, rebellion, and inequality. The biggest contribution and complication of the NFL revolves around its cultural foundation and structure. Theorists explain “inequalities exist within a culture’s value system.
Therefore, a society’s cultural norms benefit some people but hurt others” (OpenStax 67). The National Football League revolves around culture which can be described as “shared beliefs, values, and practices, that participants must learn” (OpenStax 52). Beliefs vary, for not everybody shares the same convictions. The official NFL mission states “we unite people and inspire communities in the joy of the game by delivering the world’s most exciting sports and entertainment experience” (NFL). The NFL attempts to unite people in ways such as manufacturing physical gear that establishes symbolic value within society. Material culture “refers to the objects or belongings of a group of people” while nonmaterial culture “consists of the ideas, attitudes, and beliefs of a society” (OpenStax 53). An example of this would be a fan wearing their favorite team’s jersey. Members of society are able to determine what that person values are by viewing the colors or symbols on their jersey. All sports including football require norms or rules to ensure fairness and equality during participation or spectating. Although some norms are formal and can be enforced, others are classified as informal, or “casual behaviors that are generally and widely conformed to” (OpenStax 58).
An example of an informal norm would be for players to stand during the National Anthem. It is an unspoken expectation that athletes and fans stand to honor the country, so kneeling is a violation of an informal norm. The NFL strategically established not only teams, but a strong culture as well. By incorporating symbolism into the sport, this business was able to influence societies beliefs, values, and practices while establishing norms. Karl Marx’s conflict theory “saw society as being made up of individuals in different social classes who must compete for social, material, and political resources such as food and housing, employment, education, and leisure time” (OpenStax 16). A perfect demonstration of this theory is the NFL business and all of its affiliates. Upon signing a contract with the NFL, players often receive financial security as well as the elite status of being a professional athlete. In order to make a living or beat poverty, some athletes dedicate their entire lives to achieving a contract with the NFL. By gaining employment, athletes have access to resources likes food, housing, and leisure.
This level of security contributes to the problems associated with athletes hiding sport related concussions. When sustaining an injury, players are usually unable to play and take a cut in pay. The risk of losing what they worked so hard for influences how they care for themselves. Jones Drew said “The bottom line is: You have to be able to put food on the table. No one’s going to sign or want a guy who can’t stay healthy. I know there will be a day when I’m going to have trouble walking” (Some NFL). This player is aware and anticipating the decline of his health, but his priority is performance. Although players staying in the game may enhance the teams chances of winning, the injured or concussed player ultimately pays the price. Justin Smith of the 49ers says “And most guys—99 percent of guys in the NFL—are going to play through it” (Some NFL). Members of the NFL such as coaches or players may encourage athletes to disguise their injuries for the sake of others instead of putting their own lives first. There has been a large movement to improve the safety and wellbeing of young athletes who could one day join the NFL. They state “Heads Up Football is designed to change the culture around America’s favorite sport and enhance player safety” (NFL Foundation). One could question if the NFL is truly concerned with young athlete health, or if they are grooming their potential future investments. This social conflict directly contradicts the National Football League’s mission statement and core values. One could conclude that the NFL places revenue and entertainment above the safety of its employees. Some athletes would sacrifice everything, including their own bodies to ensure they can acquire all resources needed in order to survive.
Although the NFL has formal and informal norms, its employees and affiliates still follow and break them. The different levels of conformism is explained by Robert Merton’s strain theory “which notes that access to socially acceptable goals plays a part in determining whether a person conforms or deviates” (OpenStax 139). Athletes that are drafted to the NFL typically follow the rules and regulations presented before them; this is an example of conformity. The NFL also consist of innovators, or people who use different means to achieve goals such as deviant or criminal acts. This part of the strain theory can include athletes who violate the drug policy by taking enhancement drugs. NFL athletes can sometimes embody ritualism, for they adjust and lower their goals in hopes of achieving a desired outcome. If the opposing team is up against a superior team, they may partake in ritualism. By doing so, they lower their expectation of a win, and sometimes are able to perform better. It is not uncommon for athletes to participate in retreatism, for their goals may have changed in a way that they reject what society considers acceptable.
For example, athletes may set the bar so low, they take their own life. Nicki Karimipour explains that “from 2000 until 2012 there have been almost a dozen suicides by current or retired NFL athletes” (Suicide). The final component of the strain theory includes rebellion which is easily identifiable. Regardless of belief or intention, the athletes who kneel during the National Anthem demonstrate rebellion by refusing to stand which is the socially acceptable behavior. The NFL expects its members to conduct themselves in a professional manner that represents the industry, but there are daily demonstrations of all five components of the strain theory involving conformity and deviance.
The National Football League is found everywhere you go in the United States, and sometimes out of the country. Symbolic representations of the NFL is illustrated in physical and cultural ways. The value that members of the NFL league hold influence their behaviors and beliefs ultimately impacting society. The power that this elite business holds over society is often overlooked. Children can aspire to join, athletes can hope to be drafted, and fans can dream of going to a Superbowl. Norms are the glue that hold this league together, for they dictate and encourage specific behaviors in hopes of maintaining control and portraying a positive image. While their mission statement and organizations promise prioritizing health and community, their foundation is built on putting entertainment on the forefront. The game of football has been corrupted and morphed into a game of entertainment and money. While the National Football League appears pure and wholesome, its culture is built on inequality, symbolism, and deviance.
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