Over the last decade and a half, the city of Boston has reigned over the professional sports world high and large. Their teams have reached and won championship games in virtually every year. The New England Patriots, in particular, have been the most successful team in the National Football League recently, winning three of the last five championships and bringing Patriots’ fans a lot of hometown pride. But while watching a Patriots game this weekend, I looked into the stands and noticed that despite the fact that almost 70 percent of the leagues’ players were black, the audience in the bleachers was significantly different demographically. Although the NFL does not release any figures on fan demographics, I challenge anyone to look at the stands during a game and not notice what I did: black players and white fans.
This does not look great.
Though I can not speculate on the exact demographics of the audience, looking at teams’ back offices sheds a brighter light on this problem. Only two teams’ owners are people of color. The New York Times published an article earlier this year titled “The N.F.L.'s Minority Head Coaching Ranks Are Thinning,” which cites that though the NFL started last season with more black coaches than ever before in its history, a majority of those fired through the course of the year were also black. The article’s title speaks for itself: In the NFL, there exists a culture of black players and white coaches. The divergence between the demographics of those playing and those in more stable long-term management and coaching positions is extremely problematic. While players may earn sizeable salaries for a few years, their short tenures and social pressures result in up to 78 percent of players having financial distress or filing for bankruptcy.
This issue is even more pronounced when you consider the manner in which players and their contracts are managed, especially when transferring between teams. Players begin their career by being drafted and are essentially assigned to a team, and go on for the rest of their playing career being passed around and traded by teams, always with a dollar sign attached. Through this trading and buying of players, it is almost as if athletes are commodified and their basic humanity is reduced to a price tag.
This reduction can be best seen in the way in which the fans talk about the players. Rather than rooting for teams, fans now often root for individual players and express concern when players are injured or put out of commission — not for the players themselves, but for the impact that the players’ injuries will have on their fantasy rosters. Injuries no longer are bringing out the sympathy of the fans, but mean tweets and personal attacks from fans who fault the very player for their injury, or from opposing teams’ fans who cheer on the injury. These injuries are not only extremely painful for the players, but can often mean the end of a player’s season or career.
Some might disagree with my characterization of the way in which players are traded and in the way that player’s contracts are described – they might argue that the players enter into the league freely and willingly. But even how freely this occurs can be questioned.
For many of the players, the time and effort they have put into their sport has meant sacrificing time they could have put into their academics or career prospects. When players commit to playing for a college, they are promised an education in return, but some schools have demonstrably failed this. Furthermore, when you are 26 and your life for the last 15 years revolved around football, you do not have much of a decision about what to do — it is all but the only option. When you get hurt, this can mean the end of not only your athletic career but also your only source of future livelihood.
Athletes, particularly those playing professionally, are human. We should treat them as such. Fans should respect them more and treat them in a more humane fashion, caring more for the people than the game. Teams should not buy and sell humans. They should especially not put their teams’ interest above their players’ by letting injured athletes play. Overall, we need to stop objectifying athletes and become more caring, compassionate fans.
The way we treat the athletes we cheer for must be informed by the social, racial and power dynamics that shape their careers. The apparent racial divide between players, fans, coaches, and owners is a clear problem that must be accepted and addressed. It might not be possible to entirely overcome these divides, but an inability to totally address them should not prevent us from confronting them.
In the end, we must ensure that athletes are not a product and that fans are not the consumers, especially when those in the stands or in the back office and those on the field look as different demographically as they do. As it is now, it’s a bad look.
Patrick C. Barham Quesada ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Government concentrator in Pforzheimer House.