The Clash of Sports and Politics

Recent sports news has become less about the competition on the field, and more about politics. Here is how the NFL dropped the ball on creating meaningful change.

Fans gather to protest the Washington team name.

Fans gather to protest the offensive name of Washington’s football team.
Picture rights of Al-Jazeera.

April 15th, 1947 is a day that baseball fans worldwide cherish. It was on this day that the Brooklyn Dodgers stood up to racial segregation in Major League Baseball. Relegated to the Negro leagues, Jackie Robinson aspired to perform at the highest level. Given that chance, Robinson transcended baseball not just as an athletic icon, but a cultural one, too.

Nearly 60 years later, the NBA would forge its moment. On February 23rd, 2014, Jason Collins became the first openly gay professional athlete in the four major sports leagues. Moments like these show an ability for sports to take the momentous leap of societal change.

Fast forward to the end of summer 2014. The NFL has showcased its knack to be the front and center “League of Denial,” a term used by PBS in 2013 to describe the (intended) ignorance of the league towards concussion and brain injuries.

Within these recent events, Roger Goodell has taken a stance of denial on just about everything. From the Ray Rice Domestic Violence case (including all the others they chose to ignore), the faltering and ridiculous drug policy that has significantly damaged careers like Josh Gordon, and continuation of the derogatory name of a storied franchise, the NFL has been an example opposite of what the NBA and MLB have once embodied. Its chance to make a statement has passed. Its chance to take the reins of society and progress it forward has failed.

Ray Rice, Domestic Violence, and the denial trend

The sad part is that the Ray Rice case has become a lot less about Ray Rice as an isolated incident. It has now become about NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s inability to combat Domestic Violence or anything that requires action. And maybe he likes it this way.

Roger Goodell has repeatedly denied the claim that he viewed the now made public and famous elevator video of Rice knocking out his then-fiancée Janay Palmer. Although it is obvious he is lying (as reiterated by Bill Simmons in his recent podcast, go Bill!), the video is irrelevant. We already knew what Ray Rice did prior to the video. Just as we know what Greg Hardy did, who was even convicted in July, or Adrian Peterson’s child abuse.

This is precisely what I mean by the NFL’s incompetence to take a stand against Domestic Violence. The outrage has centered on this question: If we cannot protect the most vulnerable to domestic abuse (women and children) then what values do we actually stand for as a society? The public knew about these cases for months prior to the outrage, so why did Goodell not deliver a harsh penalty? And why has Hardy and Peterson continued to get away with their monstrous crimes? Sure, they will not be playing this Sunday, but each player is still collecting a pay check nearing a million dollars this week.

It certainly would have been in the best interest of the league, and this was the chance for the NFL to lead by example and reject domestic violence. Unfortunately, this is not the only place where Goodell’s NFL has been an embarrassment by societal standards.

Meaningful, competent drug testing

Prior to last week’s substance abuse policy changes that dropped the suspension to 10 games (along with other drug testing upgrades, i.e. HGH), the NFL was getting lambasted for Cleveland Browns Wide Receiver Josh Gordon being banned for the season for testing positively for marijuana over the off-season. It’s important to note it was his fourth failed drug test, but overall, this was absolutely outrageous. Consider the facts:

“Gordon had been suspended for a positive marijuana test in the offseason. It evidently was his fourth failed test in the NFL program because 10 games is the new sanction for a fourth test. He appealed the suspension, attributing his low test level to secondhand smoke. Under the present guidelines, Gordon’s test would not have been a positive.” – ESPN.COM

When you take into account several players as mentioned above (Peterson, Hardy, etc.) have gotten off scot-free for crimes far more heinous than smoking a joint in the offseason.

We are now in an era where two U.S. states have actually legalized marijuana. This was the NFL’s chance to show that policing agencies can (and should) stop criminalizing marijuana and treating it equally to harder, more dangerous substances. Certainly the NFL does not want to come across as encouraging substance abuse, but the substance abuse policies towards pot seemed to be straight out of the “War on Drugs.” Just a prime pattern of where Roger Goodell’s NFL has moved too slowly for society, with public opinion polls showing increased tolerance towards recreational marijuana use.

A Redskins Name Change

Another controversial issue that has been building momentum recently is the name of Washington’s football team. Although this has become increasingly politicized (more on that in a bit), the point is the NFL has the chance to really step up and force an insulting team name to change.

But, Roger Goodell has seemingly gone silent on the issue. And, it’s no surprise, considering he works for the owners, and Dan Snyder has been quite adamant on keeping the name. However, if sports wants a chance to take the reins from society and simply distinguish itself on an issue bigger than just political correctness, this is the NFL’s chance.

The current politicized nature of sports is reflected in our extremely polarized political landscape. There is no need to look any further than this example of the Redskins team name controversy. A new Washington Post report concludes:

“A partisan divide on the issue that was absent in previous polls is clear in the latest data. Democrats’ support for keeping the name has dropped from 85 percent in 1992 to 58 percent, while independents’ support has also dropped by double digits, from 92 to 74 percent. Fully 89 percent of Republicans say the Redskins should not change their name, little changed from 92 percent over two decades ago.”

It’s hard to criticize Goodell too much on this issue due to the nature of polarization of opinions. This is unlike any other league issue when he is the end-all authority figure. However, he certainly isn’t pushing any progressive buttons on a topic that is moving in the direction towards an eventual name change.

Sports has two options: lag behind society on politicized issues, or take the lead front and center with bold action.

In Roger Goodell’s world, you would think there would be forty-four million options. However, there is just one option: lag behind.

What are your thoughts on the NFL and Roger Goodell? Should he step down as commissioner? Any more examples of the intertwined nature of sporting events and political action? We’d love to hear your thoughts on these issues. Reach out to us via our social media channels (Facebook, Twitter).

About Tyler Michels

Tyler is an NC State alum living in Raleigh, NC. Growing up in Northwest New Jersey, Tyler developed a love for New York sports teams, driving his desire to become a writer. In his free time, Tyler can probably be found on a golf course.


  1. Hey great article Tyler, well written.
    Personally, I think the actions of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell speak for themselves. When high profile play makers get anywhere from a free pass to a few seasons ban for breaking serious NFL rules, I think it shows that he is prioritizing making money over holding a high moral code.
    Even still, I do not think the situation the NFL is in is so black and white for himself or any other commissioner to come after him. The fact is is that the Nation Football League is not a criminal court of law. They don’t necessarily have to be; (Player X has committed actions unbecoming of the values held by the NFL and so on….) but when players (and defendants) are innocent until proven guilty I think clearer guidelines and punishments need to be in place and enforced.
    Finally, what do you think about how Hope Solo’s domestic abuse case is being handled?
    Anyways, Keep up the Good work!

    • Tyler Michels says:

      Thanks for taking the time to read my article and comment, Roy. I appreciate that.
      Although it is disturbing, I think the situation with Hope Solo is different in that it involves a minor and her sister-in-law, as oppose to a husband-wife conflict. I do think it’s different when you have a professional football player beating up his defenseless wife. I am intrigued by what punishment Solo will face, however.
      I think you raise some good points – essentially, it’s difficult to dole out suspensions and season-long bans. With that said, Roger Goodell has certainly not been very consistent or performed very well in this area.

  2. Great job Tyler – you brought up some great points, maybe the NFL will now realize they have some work to do.

  3. Good article Tyler. What I caution is handing down any punishments prior to the legal/criminal system rendering a verdict. If you suspend someone prematurely, and the charges are dropped, you open yourself up to more legal action by the player. They did what they could with A.P. based on their current system. Maybe this will bring both the Union and the Owners back to the table to review those policies. However, teams do their due diligence on the players before they draft them. They know all the risks involved with the player before they sign them. When you make a risky investment, you risk losing money. Suspended with pay does what it needs to, it gets the player away from the team, but hurts the owners where it should, in their pockets, and against the salary cap. There were red flags when A. Hernandez was drafted by the Patriots. If you want a cleaner league, don’t draft/sign players that have those tendencies. I look forward to Jameis Winston getting drafted and bringing his carnival-like life to prime time! At this rate, he may be a Raider….just what they need!

    • Tyler Michels says:

      Thanks for the comment, Damon. I think you are right that the NFL needs to be careful in handling the situations before they are decided in the court of law. However, Greg Hardy of Carolina was found guilty on two accounts of DV in July. Onto the other point about being careful who you draft: that is an excellent point. Many of these guys do have questionable character issues prior to the draft. However, someone like Ray Rice had a great reputation at Rutgers, and no one really knows if this was an isolated incident or if this abuse is something that continually happens between him and his then-fiancee. So, it’s difficult to question teams investments when these guys get in trouble. Overall, I think it’s important that Roger Goodell not be the end-all authority on matters, and if he is, he needs to be aware of society and public opinion. Not that he should base all his decisions on that, but I think he needs to realize that, hey, as a society we reject domestic violence. Guys need to be punished severely for that, especially repeat defenders. Guys who smoke marijuana in the off-season should not receive season long bans and be treated as monstrous criminals.
      Thanks again for the response!

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