Despite being dramatically more popular on TV than the NBA, NFL players are way less famous. NFL games get ten times the viewers of NBA games. A game deciding the NBA champion gets comparable viewership to an NFL regular season game.
But a quick glance at social media shows that viewers care more about their favorite basketball player than their favorite football player. Lebron James is the Instagram king, with over 67M followers. His NFL counterpart is Odell Beckham Jr., with 15M, less than a fourth of the number required for the crown. In fact, if OBJ played in the NBA he would rank 5th, just behind eternal freshman philosophy student Kyrie Irving.
To some degree, it’s simply easier to emotionally connect to basketball players. A football team has 11 men on the field, a basketball team only 5. A fan doesn’t have to sift through nearly as many players before settling on a favorite.3 Basketball players play both offense and defense. It’s not uncommon for a star player to play all 48 minutes of a playoff game. Football keeps offense and defense separate. After including special teams, the stars are on the field for less than half the game. During games, you simply get to see your favorite basketball player4 more often than your favorite football player. Not only that, basketball players have close-ups of their faces shown throughout the broadcast. We get to see them emotionally process every moment of every game. Football, like the backyard fencing league I’m organizing, requires a facemask. While watching basketball we get to see the full spectrum of human emotion. While watching football, we’re limited to only the most obvious emotions: “shaking head sadly,” “flexing while yelling at the moon,” and “rapidly eating cereal.”
The game of football is inherently anti-individual. Success relies on 11 men moving in perfect unison. A wide receiver who catches a touchdown doesn’t do it on his own. He relies on a throw from a quarterback behind blocking from an offensive line on a play designed and called by an offensive coordinator. If any single person does something wrong, the whole play falls apart.6 A wide receiver runs the wrong route? Now nobody’s open. A running back doesn’t commit to a fake? The QB gets sacked for a loss. Sean McVay’s friend doesn’t hold onto Sean McVay’s hips? Great, now Sean is unconscious near the logo, suffocating under a growing pile of flags. Football culture is soaked in the idea of sacrificing oneself for your team. New England and Alabama, the two most successful organizations within the NFL and NCAA, respectively, live and die by the mantra “Do Your Job.”7 Their teams are made up of smart players executing their specific role over and over again. This has led to a combined eleven championships in the past 20 years.
But the NFL goes above and beyond their game’s natural limitations on individuality: They actively quash their players’ fame. Of course the team must come before the player while the ball is live, but the NFL has codified this mentality as law throughout the sport, stifling self expression on and off the field.8 Look at touchdown celebrations, an exercise in enforced boredom. The most famous non-QBs of the 2000’s were wide receivers with showman instincts: Ochocinco making his own oversized Hall of Fame jacket, Terrell Owens bringing a sharpie to sign the ball after a touchdown. The NFL cracked down. “No using the ball as a prop! No falling to the ground! No fun or we’ll send you to camp to dig holes!”9 The league finally relented, but only by allowing group celebrations. The result is that the most creative, fun, and memorable celebrations contain only units, no individuals. Don’t get me wrong, I love “Duck, Duck, Goose,” “The Electric Slide,” and the “Keg Stand.” But I also loved Joe Horn pulling a phone out of the goalpost. Why won’t you let my entertainment entertain me?
This stamping out of self expression isn’t limited to in-game action. When Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem, it was an attempt to draw attention to the constant infringement on the rights of black Americans. When the media noticed Kaepernick’s actions, he became a symbol.10 When President Trump began vehemently decrying those actions, Kaepernick’s symbol became bigger than football, elevated to the stage of National politics, the same weight class as “President of the United States.” Suddenly a 29-year-old QB with a Super Bowl appearance, three NFC Championship Game Appearances, and a career TD/INT ratio higher than Peyton Manning and Drew Brees couldn’t stick to a roster as a backup.
The NBA, on the other hand, is a shining example of a league that embraces their players’ individual fame. A common talking point among older commentators is that younger fans have traded out “favorite teams” for “favorite players”11 as the reason they watch. LeBron James is the poster child for this movement. He has changed teams three times in the last 12 years. Following each change he has led the league in jersey sales as LeBron fans clamor for up-to-date threads. For each LeBron jersey burned by a spurned city,12 the nomadic tribe of LeBron-ites purchase roughly three trillion new ones.
Fame is an ever more powerful tool in society. When the NFL limits their players’ fame, it is limiting their ability to influence the world. Social media allows an individual to directly reach their fanbase, to leverage the increasingly scarce commodity of attention into more attention, and sometimes even action.13 To, dare I say, influence them. With great power comes great responsibility, and James is happy to play the part of friendly neighborhood mega-icon.14 He’s long been a vocal supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement. He shepherded the “I Promise School” into existence: An experimental school focused on helping underserved students by supplying support systems to their families in the form of job guarantees, food pantries, and housing. “The Decision” was a TV special James organized to announce that he was leaving his hometown Cavaliers to form a superteam in Miami. It was widely derided as cruel to his Cleveland fans, and pushed James into the role of NBA villain for the next several years. It also raised over six million dollars for charity. The worst thing LeBron has ever done raised over six million dollars for charity.
LeBron is the most powerful individual in his sport, operating as a sort of NBA mafia don.15 He wants a specific player on his team? Hi there, Tristan Thompson! He doesn’t like his coach? Bye bye Luke Walton! He wants a horse head in his bed when he wakes up in the morning? Sorry Seabiscuit, the King has a better agent and a thin understanding of mob movies. As much as it wrinkles their seersucker suits to admit it, NFL owners are likely uncomfortable with the idea of players wielding anything close to that amount of power. Former Houston owner Robert McNair came out and said it, stating during the Kaepernick-led anthem protests that “We can’t have the inmates running the prison.” A truly beautiful insight into an owner’s brain, as the colloquialism is “inmates running the asylum.”
Why should NFL owners change the way they do business?16 The NFL is the most valuable sports league in the country. In the last decade alone, the NFL has increased its collective value by 2.8 times. Pretty successful, right? Not when compared to the scorching 5.9x growth that the NBA has seen.17 Since the inception of Twitter and Instagram, the NBA has grown at over twice the rate of the NFL. If the NFL isn’t careful, in ten years America will have a new favorite sport.18
The NFL has been dramatically more valuable than other leagues up until this point because of their ability to dominate TV ratings. More viewers means higher ad prices which means networks pay more to air games. But as baby boomers shrivel up and retire to that little Tucson in the sky, TV is becoming less and less important. The world is going through a paradigm shift,19 and paradigm shifts kill giants. Freeways and trucks killed the railroads. Planes killed luxury ocean liners. And luxury ocean liners killed manic pixie fuck boi Leonardo Di’Caprio.20 Everyone younger than CBS’ target demographic21 has cut the cord, and before long the NFL will find itself in the battle for streaming attention with everyone else. As more and more entertainment options come into existence, fame becomes more powerful. There are literally too many things to watch, and media companies rely on the fame of their stars to direct people to their product. If the NFL wants kids born today to choose football as their sport of choice twenty years from now, they will have to start planting seeds today. They have to take a few lessons from the NBA, and I’m not just talking about shorter sleeves to show off those sick muscles. The NFL has to start helping their players become more famous:
At any given time there are 22 men on the field talking to each other. At best, ONE of those players is mic’d up. The potential viral energy falling by the wayside each week would make Osmosis Jones blush.22 Mic up everybody. You don’t have to air everything that gets said, but it’s crazy not to have a team of people whose job is to pore over the audio each week and release it as extra content.
Matthew Stafford insisting on throwing a game winning touchdown with an injured shoulder? Brian Cushing headbutting someone without his helmet on then telling everyone how dumb he is? Keelan Cole being annoyed he has to give his towel to a baby? We have these delightful moments because of good luck– because those players happened to be mic’d up that day. For each gem we catch the audio of, statistically, we’re missing out on 21 others.
Look at JuJu Smith-Schuster, wide receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Despite being considered by most experts to be no better than a top 20 player at his position,23 he has nearly the same number of followers as Patrick Mahomes, the new face of the league.24 How? He’s spearheaded some of the most fun celebrations of the last several years. From playing hide and seek with Le’Veon Bell to Kamehameha-ing on these fools, Smith-Schuster has capitalized on every touchdown as an opportunity to be meme-ified. This isn’t to take away from the fact that JuJu is a wildly likable man who puts a lot of hard work into his web presence. He continually cranks out content on Youtube and Twitch, but he had to do something to get people to start looking at his social media pages, and what he did was take his moments in the sun and turn them into highly shareable gifs.
Celebrations are a way for players to build themselves a brand. By limiting what celebrations can take place, the NFL is limiting the number of ways players can build that brand. Unless containing hate speech or lasting longer than 90 seconds, I don’t see why celebrations should be limited in any way. The very things the NFL is trying to stop are the things I want to see!25 Celebrations directed at the other team? Give me the entire Eagles’ roster performing the final dance battle from “You Got Served” in front of a seething Cowboys sideline. Sexual imagery? Hell, let a player thrust wildly while holding up a link to their OnlyFans. Props? I want Tom Brady to throw a game-winning touchdown, climb into his custom TB12 palanquin26 and be carried off the field by four of the retired white receivers he dragged to a Super Bowl Championship. Let your stars print money for you with jersey sales, dingbats.
And for God’s sake, let your players take off their helmets when they score a touchdown. After the whistle blows that facemask isn’t doing anything other than robbing an individual of an opportunity for notoriety.27 Facemasks are ankle weights in the race to fame.28 Hollywood directors and reality show producers are paid millions of dollars to coax out the type of unfiltered emotion that comes pouring out of your players when they score a touchdown. Don’t let it go down the drain.
STOP TELLING YOUR PLAYERS TO BE BORING! Postgame interviews are like watching beige paint dry on growing grass.29 Nothing interesting is ever said. Players are trained on the rules of post game interviews like 19th century aristocrats were trained in dinner party etiquette. You are expected to regurgitate some combination of your belief in your teammates, your coaches, hard work, execution, and God. Anything else results in a champagne flute smashing to the ground and a series of gasps into white gloved palms.
Start interviewing people right after a big play or a big game. Athletes are at their most compelling in the moments of pure emotion immediately after success or failure. Picture LeBron James breaking down after winning a title for Cleveland, Richard Sherman telling everyone what he thought of Michael Crabtree, or Lightning McQueen being a dick after winning that first race in “Cars.” All obviously more compelling moments than Russell Wilson stepford QB-ing his way through another media session.30
If you must continue with post game press conferences, encourage your players to be themselves. The only person who’s gotten attention by “saying all the right things” is Tebow. And that was because he was such a goodie two-shoes31 it was unnerving, like a 245 lb version of the kid who would show up to sleepovers with a bag of fruit leather because “it’s just like candy!” The fear is that honest expression at the podium will drive away viewers. The truth is the exact opposite. We love brash assholes on our team. When they’re not on our team we hate them, but we can’t look away. For a group of people that love Trump so much, you’d think NFL owners would have picked up on the media lesson he embodies.
NFL stars’ fame is limited to the context of the field. The second they retire, they fade into obscurity. Likely the most famous NFL-er to play in the 90’s and 2000’s was Brett Favre, and he was only able to parlay his years of on field dominance into Wranglers commercials and the occasional welfare scandal. Compare that to his NBA equivalent, Shaq, a cultural mainstay who regularly appears on late night talk shows. I can just say “Shaq” and you know who I mean. I can’t just say “Brett.”32 There hasn’t even been the potential for a mononymous NFL player since Bjork went undrafted. The League invests a lot of energy and resources into its players. It seems foolish and wasteful to let the flame of fame go out the second they walk off the field. The NFL should invest more in helping their players walk from one spotlight to the next.
At any given moment there are nearly 2,000 players in the league. At least one of them is worthy of a reality show. You’ve already got talented options just entering retirement: I speak for all of America when I say I would sell the state of Delaware in exchange for a travel-buddy show that follows Jay Cutler and Marshawn Lynch’s globetrotting adventures.33
How about all the players who already make music in their freetime? The music industry has a long history of taking medium-talented musicians and building them the career of very talented musicians.34 Pick the five most talented rappers, r&b singers, and country singers and set them up meetings with record labels. Let that satanic blood cult do the rest.
Do the same thing with the movie industry! We’re gonna lose Cam Newton to retirement in the next five years. That’s a real loss! Make him the next Captain America instead. Bless America with exposure to his grin on the big screen all while teaming the NFL up with the only company in the world capable of sending them new young fans.35
As fame grows more valuable, the NFL has to change how they interact with their players’ notoriety. From limiting players’ actions on the field, to limiting their voices off of the field, to even limiting how often we see their faces, the NFL has stomped on players’ fame whenever possible. At every level players are incentivized against drawing attention to themselves out of fear that their self expression will hurt the team. The result is that the NFL is a cult of “We Over Me.” Ironically, the league brass needs to learn this lesson themselves. NFL owners are so worried about holding a bigger piece of the pie than the players, they fail to see that they’re keeping the whole pie from growing. If the NFL was a football team, the owners would be an aging star receiver, threatened by the arrival of a first round pick at their position. Rather than fitting into their new role on the team, they’re on the sideline throwing their helmet and complaining about touches, and it’s going to cost the team a playoff win.
- Or CBS broadcasting all 16 “Number 1 Show”s at once:NCIS, NCIS: Las Vegas, NCIS: New York, NCIS: Los Angeles, NCIS: Baltimore, NCIS: Chicago, NCIS: Houston, NCIS: Dallas-Fort Worth, NCIS: Des Moines, NCIS: Tri-Cities Area, NCIS: Orlando, NCIS: Wichita, Big Bang Theory, Young Sheldon, Old Sheldon, Same Age Sheldon ↩
- Despite not being asked for comment, Irving responded “Who’s to say how big a number is?” ↩
- Detroit Pistons backup shooting guard Luke Kennard ↩
- Detroit Pistons backup shooting guard Luke Kennard ↩
- Like my middle school production of Glengarry Glen Ross ↩
- At Alabama the full slogan is: “Do Your Job. Also if anybody asks, it’s ‘not a job.’” ↩
- Player-owned Etsy shops are notoriously frowned upon ↩
- On the plus side, free peach sludge! (TB12 approved) ↩
- Like Prince ↩
- Detroit Pistons backup Shooting Guard Luke Kennard ↩
- https://open.spotify.com/playlist/5nxq3v1sQctCjPugEgJXF5?si=k_ezf25YT8W7qQcY8gQIxg ↩
- “Click here to give me more Farmvilles!” ↩
- Although so far he seems unwilling to beat up James Franco ↩
- In that they both love Spaghetti ↩
- Aside from morality, obviously ↩
- Serious footnote:
NFL Value 2010: 1.04B
NFL Value 2020: 2.67B
NBA Value 2010: 367m
NBA Value 2020: 2.15B ↩
- Backyard fencing, hopefully ↩
- The shift involves the “g” in the word “paradigm” — it will soon be spelled “paradimg” ↩
- Leaving us with furrowed brow/aging creep Leonardo Di’Caprio ↩
- Civil War Veterans ↩
- I suppose it would technically make Thrax blush, but nobody remembers that the bad guy from Osmosis Jones is named Thrax ↩
- He does, however, rank among the league’s top 5 JuJus. ↩
- The new hand of the league? Da’Shawn Hand. ↩
- Like a cat and a duck who are friends. Why haven’t I seen that in a broadcast?! ↩
- It’s the thing kings ride on, that servants carry. Like pall bearers at a funeral. But in this case the king’s not dead. Tom Brady will never die. Tom, we’re sorry for mentioning your name near death, please forgive us. Don’t sic Julian’s skate crew on us. ↩
- And I guess holding their mouthguards ↩
- Ankle weights are for dorks, and dorkdom is another ankle weight in the race to fame. ↩
- Which, incidentally is the premise of my art installation
“Homogeneity: An Incursive Exploration of Oneness Within Wholeness” (O’Connell, 2020, paint on chlorophyll) ↩
- ”That’s enough questions for now, members of Seattle media. It is time for I, a human, to ingest a nutrient-rich paste and observe my wife’s symmetrical face.” ↩
- The mark of a brown noser: wearing both shoes. ↩
- UCLA QB Brett Hundley?! ↩
- OBO, I’m really just looking for any excuse to offload Delaware ↩
- Sorry, Train ↩
- Unless Kyler Murray turns out to be a pokemon ↩