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Demanding More From America’s Game

Updated: Feb 10, 2020

Jennifer Lopez performs during the halftime show at Super Bowl LIV

American football (like other sports) can be unifying. It has an ability to unite those who wouldn’t ordinarily have anything in common. In what can be characterized as a battle of hero versus villain, millions come together from all walks of life to cheer on their favorite teams and athletes. The stadiums sometimes play a critical role in bridging the divide between people who may have different values and beliefs. In today’s broken world this is important. But, as a fan of the sport I must believe there’s a greater responsibility held by those who advance the sport.

In reference to responsibility, what I’m not talking about is the Super Bowl LIV halftime performance featuring Colombian singer Shakira and American actress Jennifer Lopez. Let me briefly address this though. For those who were offended, I say get out and experience the world. Your delicate sensitivities stink of hypocrisy. You can’t eat your cake and have it too. You were offended by that show. Yet you’re okay with the scantily dressed cheerleaders on the sideline through all four-quarters of gameplay. I happen to think the performance was great, and in some regards did more to empower young women. But, for those of you who found issue, I say either be consistent, give it a rest or don’t watch the game.

I should also clarify that by responsibility I’m not referring to the NFL’s efforts to make gameplay less dangerous by more smartly engineering helmets and protective gear.

What I’m referring to is the league's duty to be more socially and environmentally responsible in the way they operate, and our obligation (as fans) to hold them accountable.

We’re just one week beyond Super Bowl LIV. I (and the rest of The Faithful) are recovering from our beloved Niners' loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. Beyond replaying the game-changing moments over and over in my head I’m left in a state of thinking much more needs to be done. And I don’t mean the play on the field (although one can make a case for that). Rather, I’m talking about the responsibility of the NFL, affiliated teams and players to make American football a catalyst for change.

It’s no secret the sport of American football has its challenges with diversity and inclusivity, it’s a male dominated sport. Not to mention the largely ethnically homogeneous leadership cadre that exists at the decision-making table. And while that’s the hot issue that’s front and center for the NFL in the public eye, that’s only a part of the issue.

What’s often left unaddressed are issues of sustainability; how stadiums are currently built and operated, or the consumables used in the concession stands that are largely bad for the environment. Even issues as perverse as human trafficking don’t often surface in the public eye. I bet most spectators don’t even know this is an issue at major sporting events. From year to year we’re left in amazement by the Super Bowl commercials aired during the game, yet, we often don’t question the message they’re communicating to society. The list goes on. Didn’t know these were pain points? Keep reading.

Aluminum cups that were used by Hard Rock Stadium to reduce single-use plastic waste

If you’re a fan of American football you may recall last year’s Super Bowl being hosted in Atlanta, Georgia, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. When opened in 2017, the Mercedes-Benz Stadium became (and still is) the first ever stadium to achieve the LEED Platinum designation. However, there are only 8 NFL home games played in that stadium each year. Sure, the stadium also hosts other live performances. But there are 31 other stadiums that don’t tout such an achievement. This year’s Super Bowl was held at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami, Florida, which isn’t LEED Platinum certified.

While the stadium isn’t LEED Platinum certified however, I was pleased to hear Hard Rock Stadium would be making greater efforts (beyond Super Bowl LIV) to reduce their carbon footprint. For Super Bowl LIV specifically, Hard Rock Stadium was supplied with 50,000 recyclable aluminum cups from their partners at Centerplate (in partnership with Bud Light and Ball Corporation).

You’d be correct in thinking they simply replaced one single-use item with yet another single-use item (which isn’t a perfect solution I should add). However, it’s believed that by supplying attendees with these aluminum cups, they can potentially eliminate the half-million single-use plastic cups that would otherwise be used for a traditional Super Bowl.

Before you think this is a one-and-done by the Hard Rock Stadium, know that this is a part of a larger goal by the stadium to eliminate 99.4% of single-use plastics by this year, 2020.

To put that in perspective, Hard Rock Stadium is where the Miami Dolphins play their regular season home games. The stadium seats over 65,000 attendees. With 32 teams in the NFL, each team plays 8 home games. So, through a regular season that total number amounts to over a half-million attendees. It’s estimated that Hard Rock Stadium historically uses approximately 678,000 plastic bottles and 525,000 plastic cups each year. When combined with other single-use plastics it’s estimated this change will eliminate over 2.8 million single-use plastic items annually.

Clearly, one downfall of NFL games (or any large sporting event) includes the amount of trash left over by attendees when the game concludes. Eliminating single-use plastics is a herculean effort, but in my estimation is only a starting point. Perhaps others will take note and get on board. And while the NFL’s sustainability platform includes the Super Bowl Environmental Program, it’s clear that more can be achieved beyond the limits of just the Super Bowl alone.

It doesn’t end there though; it gets even more sinister.

Miami Dolphins wide receiver Albert Wilson announcing a campaign to prevent human trafficking during Super Bowl LIV

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued a statement informing the public of an expected increase in illegal activity in the weeks leading to Super Bowl Sunday. That may not come as a surprise. However, what may surprise you is that they were not talking about threat of terrorism. They were referencing human trafficking. The act of human trafficking takes on many forms and is much more prevalent than most people realize.

DHS estimates human trafficking victimizes nearly 25 million people around the world. It’s assessed that 80 percent are victims of forced labor, and the other 20 percent are victims of sex trafficking. Folks, this is modern day slavery. Annually, this barbarism generates approximately $150 billion in global profit for bad actors. The Super Bowl is just one event that’s exploited for this very purpose. Don’t believe me? Here are some statistics from the Super Bowls held in Atlanta, Georgia (2019) and Minneapolis, Minnesota (2018).

In Atlanta, police made 169 arrests related to human trafficking. That number was up from the 110 arrests in Minneapolis the year prior. Even calls to the trafficking hotlines saw a 23 percent increase days before the Super Bowl in Atlanta. You may be thinking to yourself that this has less to do with the NFL and team owners and more to do with those committing the crimes. Maybe, but there’s a greater responsibility by the league, the affiliated teams and all the corporate partners of the NFL to better educate and train their employees to spot and report signs of human trafficking. I’ll also concede that the increased number of reported arrests in Atlanta, Georgia, could in fact be the result of greater awareness, training and action by engaged employees. The increase of arrests could be the result of making greater progress. However, while progress is being made, we must also recognize that this change starts at the top and with the culture of an organization.

Senior leaders are not immune, they also set the tone. I’ll remind you that New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft was charged with solicitation in 2019. Coincidence? I happen to believe there’s much to glean from this occurrence.

Yes, he’s innocent until proven guilty, and this was a part of a widespread sex-trafficking sting of massage parlors. However, let me put a finer point on the matter. This was a 14-minute stop made (by Kraft) on the morning of the AFC Championship game at the Orchids of Asia Day Spa in Jupiter, Florida. This was a strip-mall spa where trafficked workers paid their captors more than 70 percent of all earned wages for food and lodging. I happen to think there’s more that’s not being divulged.

Lastly, I should add the charges on Kraft are still pending.

Katie Sowers, offensive assistant coach with the San Francisco 49ers

Let’s face it, decisions that truly change an entire league or a team’s culture starts at the top. It requires senior leadership to have the will to take bold decisive action. I believe with greater inherent diversity and inclusivity comes more diverse thought. That said, there’s a disparity between Caucasians and people of color (even between men and women) in positions of power in American football. This includes positions as coaching staff and executive management. Sure, Super Bowl LIV was the first played with a female and openly LGBTQ+ NFL coach on the sidelines (Katie Sowers), but this seems to be the exception, not the rule.

Remember, this is coming just as the league is yet again facing questions about whether NFL owners have an issue with coaches of color. Let’s break this down.

Currently only 3 of the 32 NFL teams have black head coaches.

In the last several years there were 19 head-coaching positions available.

Only 2 black coaches were hired to fill those positions.

As I write this there are 5 head-coaching jobs available.

Yet not a single position has been filled by a black coach.

And yes, the NFL has certain measures in place to address diversity. One such policy is The Rooney Rule. This is a provision requiring teams to interview at least one minority candidate for head-coach and executive management positions. But, like any single rule, it won’t solve the deeper more complex issues that exist.

I won’t muse on as if I were a diversity and inclusion expert. I’m not. I won’t be the one to solve that problem. However, what I do know is that people of different backgrounds live different experiences. As a result, they bring different perspective and thought to any profession or place of work. Perhaps if we demand greater diversity in the NFL (as fans of the sport), particularly on teams and in positions of leadership we’ll have different solutions to challenges; sustainability, human trafficking, diversity and inclusion and ethics just being some.

I should be clear, I’m not by any stretch claiming that all the above challenges will be solved by simply employing a more diverse workforce. However, I believe that greater inherent diversity (ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation) allows for greater acquired diversity (different thought gained through experience).

Such a change may even influence current and future NFL team names that could be understood as racist. One could only hope I suppose.

Even the commercials are changing, and I like that. Over the years I’ve noticed Super Bowl ads and commercials are (in my opinion) losing their comedic edge. I’m okay with that, let me tell you why. Some of the commercials are serving a greater purpose. That’s not to say the budgets are getting smaller and the acting talent is getting worse. This year we saw everybody from Sam Elliott and Lil Nas X to Winona Ryder, John Krasinski, Sofia Vergara and Bill Murray in commercials. It was star-studded, and that’s an understatement. By greater purpose I’m referring to commercials becoming more socially responsible in their message and the societal issues they bring greater awareness to. This is a good thing.

The much talked about commercial that comes to mind includes the Olay commercial “Make Space for Women” that featured astronaut Nicole Stott. The commercial featured a fictional space mission to promote Olay's pledge to donate up to $500,000 to Girls Who Code, a non-profit organization that engages young women in computer science and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) activities. What was refreshing is that the commercial wasn’t the stuffy Public Service Announcement that we’ve all seen a million times and roll our eyes at. The commercial was an incredibly creative prompt to society to make space for women in industries and careers dominated by men. The commercial featured a population present in everyday life and often forgotten, women.

Everything about that commercial said we’re headed in the right direction. It’s a sign companies (Olay in this case) may be willing to pay millions to promote something with social value. To put this in perspective, it’s estimated this year’s Super Bowl ads cost approximately $5.6 million dollars per 30-second spot. And while some people may see that as self-serving, I would challenge that idea and say it’s shared value.

Now, before you think I’m suggesting we write off watching NFL games (or American football), that’s not the point I’m making, so relax. I’m just suggesting American football isn’t immune to social and environmental flaws. I’m also suggesting that as fans we might have a responsibility to be the change we want to see in the sport. While we can’t hire or fire head-coaches or team owners we can (and should) make noise about it.

In this era of consumer activism where a customer’s purchase is aligned with their sense of morals and values, fans can do more. Here’s my plea. Instead of fake outrage focused on halftime performances or whether someone is kneeling during the National Anthem, we must be more focused on deeper rooted issues that have a measurable impact. Just as we choose to purchase goods and services from companies we believe share our values, we can choose to view, cheer for and attend American football games with the same intention.

At the end of the day though, we all have a choice to make. Turn a blind eye to the problems or educate ourselves and make noise.

I choose noise, but that’s just me. What say you?

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