It’s an often veiled notion that professional sports are, at their core, businesses. As fans, we hear about and even delight in athletes signing multi-million dollar contracts, teams rising in value after a string of successful championships and new stadiums, arenas or parks being built that “spared no expense.” Leagues like the NBA, NFL and MLB boast annual revenue earnings in the billions, major television networks like CBS, NBC and ABC fight one another for broadcasting rights and sports analysis channels like ESPN run program after program in an effort to keep fans watching and ad dollars coming.
Sports are an industry and a damn profitable one at that. The three aforementioned leagues combined for $30 billion in revenue in 2017, with large portions coming from merchandise sales and advertising. At the root of this revenue are the fans, who act as consumers of everything the sporting world presents; the leagues are able to sell ads and merchandise because fans buy the products out of necessity, desire or to support their preferred franchise. Understanding this basic economic model helps to navigate social and political controversies in sports when they surface. To illustrate this, let’s examine two incidences that occurred within two years of each other, both featuring a sole, popular NFL player.
In late 2014, a Montgomery County, Texas, grand jury indicted Adrian Peterson, a running back playing for the Minnesota Vikings at the time, on charges of reckless or negligent injury to a child. Reports and photographs surfaced showing Peterson beat his 4-year-old son with a switch, a wooden branch fashioned into a stick to strike with; the child sustained cuts and bruises all over his body, including his buttocks and genitalia. Peterson was deactivated for one game by the Vikings and suspended by the NFL — his 2014 season over when an arbitrator ruled in favor of the NFL’s decision. Peterson pleaded no contest to the charge and reached a plea agreement wherein he was put on probation, underwent 80 hours of community service and fined $4,000. The suspension Peterson was on was unpaid and subsequently appealed by the NFL Players Association, which, while initially upheld, was overturned by U.S. District Court Judge David Doty in February of 2015. Peterson returned to the game in the 2015-2016 season and continued playing, his first two years back a bit poor but the more recent two on par with his celebrated career.
Peterson admitted in 2018 that he still disciplines his son, but only uses a belt. The incident was widely covered at the time, but as often happens, the story was pushed aside as months passed, briefly recalled when anything related occurred, such as the district court case. When Peterson was reinstated, there was no systemic protesting, no boycotting of Vikings merchandise, nothing. Yes, this player had admitted to abusing his 4-year-old child with a wooden stick so extensively that the injuries were apparent on his scrotum, but he’s one hell of a running back.
To be fair, the league took a firm stance in suspending him without pay until mandated by a court not to. However, teams barely batted an eye at resigning him; he’s been playing consistently and for millions of dollars since. The drawn conclusion is that the benefit of signing Peterson, whether for the jersey sales, the ticket sales or the prospect of him helping the team reach the playoffs (which increases revenue), outweighs the cost of potential bad PR. It was a business decision through and through.
Then there’s Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick was the starting quarterback for the San Francisco Giants for four seasons, including the 2013 season when the 49ers reached the Superbowl. In 2016, he began kneeling during the national anthem ceremony that played during football games as a way to protest what he believed was systemic oppression of black people in the United States and their treatment by law enforcement nationwide. The demonstration was suggested by former NFL player Nate Boyer, who had served as a Green Beret and went on multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. The protests were immediately politicized as being anti-American and disrespectful to the United States Armed Services, with the anthem and flag being declared by those who disagree with Kaepernick as a symbol of the troops. Despite the fact that the protest of choice was suggested by a former military serviceman, despite the fact that systemic oppression of black people has been documented in the U.S. and despite the fact that nothing about the anthem or the flag besides personal context implies homage to soldiers, the outcry continued. The NFL did not take any action against Kaepernick but calls came from fans, political figures and sports analysts for teams to avoid signing him in the future.
When he opted out of his contract with the 49ers in 2017, Kaepernick became a free agent and has remained unsigned since. His quarterback rating in 2016 was 90.7, which placed him 17th out of 30 starting quarterbacks in the league; not great, but not terrible. He was passed by all NFL teams in the 2017 off season, with Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti deciding not to sign Kaepernick as a backup to Joe Flacco due to the suspected backlash and criticism that would entail. Flacco’s quarterback rating in 2016 was 83.5. Kaepernick reached a confidential settlement with the NFL in 2019, after filing a grievance against the league for colluding with NFL owners to keep him out of the league.
Sure, we can believe that Kaepernick, who is an incredibly gifted, disciplined and experience athlete, who took a team to the Super Bowl and averaged a quarterback rating higher than half the league’s current starters, went unsigned because of his subpar final two seasons. We can believe that his protests had nothing to do with it, but given the 8 percent decline in viewership of the NFL during the peak of the kneeling protests, it’s hard not to be suspicious.
The decision to pass on Kaepernick was a business move, where the public outcry of signing the athlete did not outweigh the benefit that athlete brings; it’s a move motivated by a desire to keep fans happy. Our consumption of the product is what determines how the league and owners act. If fans decide that a man who admits to beating his 4-year-old son with a wooden stick is acceptable but a different man who takes a knee during the national anthem at the suggestion of a former U.S. soldier is not, then one will get a contract and the other will not. This same model of costs vs. benefit will be used in every major or minor sports controversy that arises, evidenced by several ongoing today: New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft being arrested for soliciting prostitution or Golden State Warriors owner Mark Stevens shoving Toronto Raptors’ guard Kyle Lowry. This growing truth about the sporting world brings with it a harsh reality: Morality is a fluid construct subject to the ebb and flow of society, driven not by dignity and sense, but dollars and cents.