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The NFL’s Beer Hypocrisy

If you read my recent post about the Bulletin’s Fantasy Football games, you already know that NFL Football is the only one of the big four professional sports that I follow. I’m a lifelong Green Bay Packers fan, but don’t hold that against me. I also believe that beer and football are nearly inseparable. They go together like hops and barley, a bat and ball, bacon and eggs, or money and politics.

But for the past few years, the NFL has been trying to remake itself as a squeaky clean sport, as foolish a task as I can imagine. As pointed out so cogently by the late, great George Carlin in his comparison of baseball and football, football is nothing short of organized war. It’s violent and requires players who are not just competitive, but are willing to play with pain and inflict it on others.

Carlin described the object of football thusly:

In football the object is for the quarterback, also known as the field general, to be on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy in spite of the blitz, even if he has to use shotgun. With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing this aerial assault with a sustained ground attack that punches holes in the forward wall of the enemy’s defensive line.

Watch old NFL films and you hear player after player talk about how much they just wanted to hurt their opponent, how much they enjoyed it. It attracted a certain type of person, especially in the days when it didn’t pay well. It was always a business, but when players didn’t make much more than many other professions, they had to really love it to play it professionally. But little by little that’s changed. Not only are professional players today paid very well (thanks to unsung older players who created the player’s union), but today’s football is far less violent than it used to be, at least outwardly. Many of the recent rule changes were made to protect players from injury and to reduce much of the naked aggression that used to be the signature of the sport. That was, at least in part, because of the money at stake and what happened when too may star players got injured. The business side of the game has been managed quite skillfully, to the benefit of the rich owners, but often to the detriment of the fans, host cities and even local taxpayers. The amounts of money involved with television rights, merchandising and ticket prices are all staggeringly high. According to Forbes in 2006:

The NFL is the richest sports league in the world, with the average team worth some $957 million. And the Dallas Cowboys, the most valuable team in the NFL, are now the single most valuable sports franchise on the planet, worth $1.5 billion.

Pro football is also the most profitable sport on the planet (mean operating income in 2006 was $17.8 million on $204 million in revenue). Although its television ratings have slipped in the past decade, the NFL still beats the daylights out of other prime-time programming, including every other sport. Nearly three out of every four Americans watched an NFL game on television last season

So the stakes are high for nearly every decision the league makes. Gone are the days when football was a game that was also a business. Nowadays it’s a business first, and the game aspect of it is of secondary importance. Case in point, last week the NFL issued a press release about their newly created “fan code of conduct.” It’s as ridiculous a piece of hubris as I’ve ever seen from a business that relies on the goodwill of its customers to attempt to control their behavior. Naturally, the NFL sees it differently, to wit:

The fan code of conduct is designed to set clear expectations and encourage a stadium environment that is enjoyable for all fans. Teams may add additional provisions to the standard code based on local circumstances or preferences. Each team will communicate its code of conduct during the preseason to season-ticket holders and fans through mailings, online, and in-stadium signage, and other messages.

“The in-stadium experience is critically important to the NFL, our clubs and our fans and it will be a major focus this season,” said NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. “We are committed to improving the fan experience in every way we can — from the time fans arrive in the parking lot to when they depart the stadium. We want everyone to be able to come to our stadiums and enjoy the entire day.”

The code of conduct is intended to address behavior that detracts from the gameday experience. Any fan in violation of these provisions will be subject to ejection without refund and loss of ticket privileges for future games.

What a steaming pile of propaganda and doublespeak. They’re concerned about the image of their business and about liability. Period. Goodell’s being “committed to improving the fan experience” is deceitful hogwash. The majority of fans already behave themselves at games and stadiums already have rules in place to keep the peace. Not to mention, we’re already a nation of laws with plenty of rules against behavior that harms one another, whether at a football game or anywhere else. Nothing in the NFL’s Fan Code of Conduct adds to that. All it does is try control fan behavior, in an attempt to keep it within some narrow range of acceptability that they believe is “family friendly,” all in effort to make more money. It’s shameless. Here’s the whole shebang.

NFL Fan Code of Conduct

The National Football League and its teams are committed to creating a safe, comfortable, and enjoyable experience for all fans, both in the stadium and in the parking lot. We want all fans attending our games to enjoy the experience in a responsible fashion. When attending a game, you are required to refrain from the following behaviors:

  • » Behavior that is unruly, disruptive, or illegal in nature.
  • » Intoxication or other signs of alcohol impairment that results in irresponsible behavior.
  • » Foul or abusive language or obscene gestures.
  • » Interference with the progress of the game (including throwing objects onto the field).
  • » Failing to follow instructions of stadium personnel.
  • » Verbal or physical harassment of opposing team fans.

Event patrons are responsible for their conduct as well as the conduct of their guests and/or persons occupying their seats. Stadium staff will promptly intervene to support an environment where event patrons, their guests, and other fans can enjoy the event free from the above behavior. Event patrons and guests who violate these provisions will be subject to ejection without refund and loss of ticket privileges for future games.

Look how broad some of those are. “Verbal harassment of opposing team fans” could easily include simple “booing,” especially in home stadiums where the rival team is doing the razzing. That’s as much a part of the game as anything, and now people have to watch what they say? In reality, most of what’s on that list are already prohibited or at least frowned upon. Obscene gestures? Since when did giving someone the finger become illegal? In bad taste, maybe, but a crime? According to the rules of conduct, you could bring a buddy who gets drunk and lose your season tickets? Yeah, that seems reasonable.

Beyond harming other people (already against the law), the idea that the NFL thinks they have the right to tell people how they experience the game I find highly insulting. I’m sure the argument goes something like they’re a private organization and therefore have the right to make their own rules, but they sure don’t act private every time they ask the communities where they do business to pay for their stadiums and make tax concessions to stay there, etc. They can’t have it both ways. They can’t pretend to be a part of the community where fans and non-fans alike pay for the privilege of these teams making billions of dollars in their home town and then act like they owe nothing to those communities, telling them how to act.

Carol Slezak, a Columnist with the Chicago Sun-Times, makes some excellent points in a recent column, Oh, That NFL Hypocrisy. As she puts it. “The code of conduct, then, basically amounts to a public-service announcement with penalties attached: Please drink responsibly — or else. Was it really necessary for the league to codify this message?”

The hypocrisy gets downright remarkable when you recall the “beer partnerships” the NFL has wooed over the years. Coors is the official beer of the NFL, Budweiser commercials dominate the Super Bowl, and at Chicago’s Soldier Field you can watch the game from the “Miller Lite Party Deck.”

As long as there’s beer for sale, there always will be some misbehaving fans. But the code of conduct? It’s overkill. Most fans don’t throw bottles onto the field. Most fans don’t get into brawls during games. Most fans don’t drive home drunk. Most fans behave themselves. The code of conduct comes across as arrogant and insulting. A league that has no problem charging fans outrageous prices for tickets, merchandise, the NFL package and everything else imaginable now is telling them how they must act? Goodell simply could have advised teams to enforce their existing rules by policing the stands better.”

Slezak goes on to suggest some sensible rules that football fans should hold the league to if they want us to watch. And that’s the direction it should run, the league doesn’t get to tell fans how to be fans. All of society is subject to the same sets of rules, and by and large they are effective at keeping law and order. There will always be people who can’t follow the rules or — in the case of drinking too much — can’t hold their booze. There are already laws to deal with such people. I hope this will backfire on the NFL, but in a post-9/11 world with paranoia and patriot acts, most people seem willing to set aside their own civil liberties because they’ve been convinced it’s “for their own good.”

But there’s at least one more hypocritical aspect to these rules. Several of the players themselves are hardly role models and have done far worse than the rules the fans are supposed to abide by. Asking fans to behave at the same time players’ conduct spirals out of control leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

As Dan Moffett wrote in the Palm Beach Post, a column entitled First rule for fans: Don’t act like players, “[d]ozens of current and former players have had run-ins with the law in recent years — a spate of charges and crimes that pretty much spans the breadth of human indiscretion: DUI, assault, spousal abuse, drug possession, drug trafficking, dogfighting, lewd behavior, theft, witness tampering, larceny and assorted varieties of disorderly conduct and boorish behavior.”

In the case of the players, in some ways it’s understandable. To keep that war analogy going, it’s similar to what soldiers go through. You can’t train people to be highly competitive and violent to do a job and then expect them to switch it off once they’re off the field of battle. Human nature doesn’t really work that way. Yet we always seem surprised when such people go off the rails and act at home the way they were trained to act at work. And that extends to fandom, too. The league can’t try to foster team loyalty (which adds to their coffers) without some people taking those passions too far.

As one NFL Analyst, David Halpren, argues, at the Bleacher Report.

I understand that the NFL wants to create an environment that is friendly and safe. I understand that women and children shouldn’t be scared to enter a stadium. And I totally respect the fact that an opposing fan should be allowed to cheer for his or her team at a road game without being harassed.

However, let’s keep things in perspective.

Not being able to use “foul language” is almost a violation of my rights. I say almost because obviously I’m in their stadium, so I have to abide by their rules, but come on!

There are eight regular season home games each year. Each game is an event. You tailgate with friends, you get pumped up for the game and you are passionate. Cursing is second nature.

Are you telling me if the Eagles run a five-yard out pattern on 3rd-and-12 I’m supposed to sit on my hands? Hell no. I’m going to tell Andy Reid to go %$&@ himself. Not because I’m mean, but because I’m into the game and I’m expressing myself.

These new rules are very subjective and I hate the fact that some stadium security guard has the right to pick me out of a crowd and get my tickets revoked because I said “@#%hole” as some moron wearing an Eli Manning jersey walked up the steps.

I have an idea; how about they just play the games in the stadium with no fans and we’ll all watch the games in our own houses while we sip tea?

But perhaps the real tragedy is that we think we have to legislate good manners at all. I think no one would argue that the goal of everyone being able to enjoy a sporting event without fear of bodily harm or egregious verbal abuse is not, in and of itself, a bad idea. But why we do we need rules to act like responsible adults? What has happened to our society when I have to be told not to throw something on the football field or not physically abuse my seat neighbor? And the first rule says, at least in part, that it’s illegal to do something illegal. Why did I need to be told that? Have we really come to the point where people assume that everything that’s not been completely and specifically spelled out, is okay to do? Is that the result of paternalistic, nanny laws? Yes, I think it is, at least to some extent.

I definitely think we need to weed out the bad drinkers out there who make it tough for the rest of us, fueling neo-prohibitionists with ammunition for their misguided cause. But until we again have a society that makes people responsible for their own actions through peer pressure — not just laws — then that’s a difficult proposition. What we need is education and especially the message that it’s quality that matters and not quantity. That’s not the message the big breweries will get behind, because they rely so heavily on volume. Budweiser’s term of art is drinkability, which is essentially code for drinking (or at least buying) in quantity. That’s what large beer companies need to survive but as these lumbering giants get ever larger, emphasizing quality over quantity becomes increasingly at odds with their need to maintain shareholder value. And I think that’s exactly what would solve the NFL’s beer-drinking problem.


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