Damon Young: The fake hustle of self-righteous NFL critique

I don’t remember when I first heard Coach Mac, my head coach in college, critique me or one of my teammates for “fake hustle.” I do remember that even though it was the first time I’d heard that phrase, it was so vivid and contextual that I immediately knew what he meant. It’s the performance of effort in lieu of effort — a manipulative melodrama intended to convince people you care more and play harder than you actually do. In a basketball context, it’s slapping the floor with both palms to communicate good defense instead of just locking up.

If this is too esoteric, think a triflin’ boyfriend bending the knee and proposing to his girlfriend in a crowded mall food court. Or, better yet, a person talking and texting and tweeting and writing about how problematic the NFL is — and receiving all of the easy, low-hanging lauds of being critical of the Death Shield — and then watching the games.

Of course, the path for ethical consumption here, in America, is narrow. It exists, sure. But capitalism ensures it’s intentionally elusive. If you dig far enough, most occupations we hold and consumer choices we make are possible because of harms so far removed from the minutiae of our lives that they don’t feel significant enough to affect our behavior. Maybe you wouldn’t buy those sneakers if you lived next to the sweatshop they were threaded in. But you live in a suburb with zoning laws, so you don’t think twice about it. So, what distinguishes criticizing the NFL but still watching the games from critiquing, I don’t know, Apple’s labor practices but owning an iPhone? What makes the former “fake hustle” but not the latter? I have an answer. But first, I want to talk about the NFL’s new “helmets.” Have you seen the helmets? Let’s talk about the helmets because that explains everything else.

If you’ve watched any footage from training camp this year, you might have noticed that the players are wearing something that looks like someone gathered all the waffles from IHOP and stitched them together into a helmet-like substance. They’re called “Guardian Caps,” they’re intended to reduce head trauma, and the NFL has mandated that linemen, tight ends, and linebackers — the players who tend to be involved in the most helmet-on-helmet collisions — must wear them during training camp. Guardian Sports, the manufacturer of the waffle, claims it reduces impact up to 33 percent.

If this sounds like another example of fake hustle, you’re right, it is!

Football, America’s most popular sport (by far) and most lucrative TV property (by far), demands that many of the participants violently smash into each other each time the ball is snapped. Scientists and players have compared the collisions to car accidents. The average number of snaps per game is approximately 130. Multiply that by the number of games each season, and then multiply that by the number of years these men have played contact football, and then you have a … really big number. The NFL telling everyone they’re making football safer is like choking someone and calling it a neck massage. The only way to change this sport is to make a new sport, something no one is very interested in. The violence — and the broken brains and bodies caused by it — isn’t just an unfortunate inevitability, it’s the entire point. The tremendous feats of skill and athleticism that populate highlight packages are only meaningful because of the specter of terrible violence. And sometimes, the terrible violence is the highlight. Remove the violence, and you remove the interest. Remove the interest, and you remove the money.

When it is understood that the NFL’s primary function is to increase the value of the 32 teams, it makes sense that as long as franchise values continue to grow into the billions, the league (and, by default, we) doesn’t really care that much about the health of the players. Of course the NFL’s conduct policy will always be rickety and janky, because things created to construct a veneer of concern usually are. Of course the NFL used to receive millions of dollars a year from the Department of Defense, an act that paid for the injection of the performance of patriotism, and made each game feel like an episode of “NCIS.” Of course it would make a big stink every October, with the special pink gloves and cleats to recognize Breast Cancer Awareness Month. And of course it was revealed in 2013 that only eight percent of the proceeds went to breast cancer research. (The NFL now devotes October to raising awareness for all cancers.) Of course it would effectively blackball a player for kneeling during the anthem. And then, when the national consciousness about the value of Black lives shifted for that whisper of an hour in the summer of 2020, and protesting became a market-tested corporate strategy, of course the owners would find it in their hearts to be more tolerant of kneeling. The NFL has created America’s most effective symbiotic relationship between the monetization of harm and the performance of harm reduction.

The only way to change this sport is to make a new sport, something no one is very interested in.

So, back to you. Well, back to us, because I’m here too. Ever since watching Ryan Shazier almost die in 2017 during what looked like a routine tackle, I don’t watch as much football as I used to. I basically only watch the Pittsburgh Steelers. I’ve tried to rationalize this by saying I’m a Steelers fan, not an NFL fan, but that’s fake hustle too!

Anyway, what makes the fake hustle of NFL criticism so distinct is that football — the NFL specifically — is inessential. An iPhone, for instance, can be a necessity for communication, health care, public safety, food delivery and employment. But our consumption of the NFL is centered in pure and unadulterated desire. Which means that even while knowing that not watching is literally the only way we can give the league any incentive to sincerely attempt to change, we watch because it just feels good.

Is the point here that we should just say nothing? No! Keep the NFL on the hot seat. Just know that as long as you keep watching the games, it’s not fire under that chair. Just smoke.

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