The pigskin and politics make strange bedfellows. But efforts this past week by both the White House and National Football League Players Association, as well as Super Bowl sideshow coverage of the legalization of pot in the home states of the competing teams and the ethics of wearing fur to the big game, show that football has become, well, a political football.
Several NFL players, and the sports agent that served as the inspiration for the character played by Jay Mohr in Jerry Maguire, sent out tweets encouraging their followers to enroll in ObamaCare on Super Bowl Sunday, according to a report in the Washington Free Beacon.Former Ravens linebacker Brendan Ayenbadejo tweeted, “Football fans, hope you’re getting ready for Super Bowl XLVIII, don’t forget you can #getcovered at healthcare.gov.”
The language came verbatim from text suggested by the White House obtained by the Free Beacon. Ayanbadejo continues to make headlines despite his retirement through his outspoken support of gay marriage and confession that teammates prior to a Super Bowl appearance–he refuses to say whether as a member of the Bears or Ravens–smoked marijuana at the team hotel.
Other players enlisted in the effort include Adewale Ogunleye, who hasn’t played in the league for three seasons, and Donte Stallworth, a ten-year NFL veteran who didn’t link up with a team this past season.The administration official responsible for the campaign, which has thus far enjoyed the aid of a few washed-up players, is Kyle Lierman of the White House Office of Public Engagement. In an email obtained by the Free Beacon, the unfortunately named Lierman suggested of the player tweets, “They can definitely change these up or put their own spin on these.”
Drew Rosenhaus, the celebrity agent, perhaps best remembered for his role in engineering Terrell Owens’s departure from the Philadelphia Eagles, also tweeted out the messages suggested by the White House. Rosenhaus has represented the three players identified as serving the White House’s communication efforts on the Affordable Care Act.
Prior to enlisting the washed-up jocks to boost ObamaCare, the president had repeatedly expressed reticence about a hypothetical son playing football. A New York Democrat has introduced legislation to ban real kids from competing on the gridiron in the Empire State. Super Bowl advertisements, Joe Namath wearing a fur coat to toss the coin at the big game, and demands to change the league’s drug-testing policy in light of marijuana legalization in several states have all sparked political debate outside of the world of sports.
At Roger Goodell’s state-of-the-NFL address on Friday, political questions about pot and free health-care-for-life for players–this one asked by ’49ers tight end Vernon Davis–seemed as run-of-the-mill as queries about playoff expansion and a new franchise. The son of a US senator, after all, presides over a GDP larger than Laos, Moldova, and Haiti, so questions beyond football arise for the head of an economy that transcends a mere game.
At the NFL Players Association annual “State of the Union” address prior to the Super Bowl, executive director DeMaurice Smith placed his guild of millionaires in the context of the civil, women’s, and workers’ rights movements. “Last year, as a matter of fact, I was told that there were some anonymous agents at the combine who chafed and claimed that they were a little offended when I said that the history of collective action by our union mirrored the history of those fights in the civil rights movement, the fights for women’s suffrage, and the fights for unionization for people worldwide,” the former Clinton Administration aide to Eric Holder declared. Smith’s salary exceeds the average salary of an NFL player–but remains just a fraction of Goodell’s $30 million annual take.
As the NFLPA executive director, Smith has formed an alliance with the AARP and hosted a United Steelworkers of America representative at this year’s Super Bowl-week event. Preceded by Hall of Fame guard Gene Upshaw, Smith hails from the political world rather than the sports world, so the strident ideological language employed by him strikes some as a better fit for a campaign than a Super Bowl event. At the press conference at the Sheraton Times Square last week, he outlined his group’s mission as serving players “past, present, and future.” NFL retirees have long regarded the NFLPA as body interested only in the active players whose paychecks fund it.
After badgering by several fellow retirees, the late Gene Upshaw defended the NFLPA from the gripes of former players. “The bottom line is I don’t work for them,” the group’s frustrated executive director once said. “They don’t hire me and they can’t fire me. They can complain about me all day long. They can have their opinion. But the active players have the vote.”
If the olive branch to “past” players seemed natural in light of this history, Smith’s reference to “future” players struck observers as novel. To this end, Smith praised Grambling’s varsity squad that refused to play one game this season to highlight the neglect of the program by the school. The historically-black college’s athletes, Smith said, “were concerned about the working conditions that they had.” The strained effort to dub the locker-room environment and the facilities used by amateur athletes as “working conditions” continued with Smith’s praise of a move by Northwestern players to organize a union.
Smith’s passionate address suggests that he wants to ensure that they won’t be the last. And the popularity of the game (a record 112 million Americans watched the Super Bowl) and the money involved (the NFL nears $10 billion in annual revenue) points to further encroachments onto the football field by politicians and activists.
Like Rod Tidwell, they too shout: “Show me the money!”
Daniel Flynn, author of The War on Football: Saving America’s Game, edits Breitbart Sports.